Border Crossing: A Novel

Border Crossing: A Novel

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by Pat Barker
     
 

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Set in the north of England, Pat Barker's new novel portrays a child psychiatrist who rescues a man from drowning one day while walking on a beach in Northumberland. Uncannily, he recognizes the man; it's Danny Miller, a child murderer at whose trial he once gave evidence. Since the trial, he has reconsidered that evidence and found it lacking. Now he confronts

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Overview

Set in the north of England, Pat Barker's new novel portrays a child psychiatrist who rescues a man from drowning one day while walking on a beach in Northumberland. Uncannily, he recognizes the man; it's Danny Miller, a child murderer at whose trial he once gave evidence. Since the trial, he has reconsidered that evidence and found it lacking. Now he confronts the man whose altered fate may be his responsibility.

Editorial Reviews

Barry Unsworth
Another World demonstrates the extraordinary immediacy and vigor of expression we have come to expect from Barker-brilliant touches of observation, an unfailing ear for dialogue, a talent for imagery that is darting and brief but wonderfully apt. This is a novel that doesn't allow you to miss a sentence.
New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times Book Review
In spare, rapidly moving, present-tense prose, Barker gives us family life straight up. There is not a smudge of sentimentality, not a single decorative arabesque. She adds dignity to this century's often bleak and undignified human record.
Hall-Balduf
The real question is: Can people change?"

The young man who asks this in Pat Barker's Border Crossing isn't Billy Prior of her "Regeneration" trilogy, and he isn't asking it of a World War I psychiatrist. This is modern-day Danny Miller, convicted killer out on parole. And the man he's asking is psychologist Tom Seymour, whose testimony as an expert witness helped convict him - 13 years ago, when Danny was 10.

They meet again near Tom's home along the Tyne River. Tom and his wife are out for a walk when they see a young man throw himself in. Tom pulls him out and only later realizes who he is.

Danny wants his help to understand the murder. Tom resists: "I mean, you get fished out of a river by a psychologist, so you decide it's time for some psychotherapy. Suppose I'd been a tailor. Would you have ordered a suit?"

But he's the man who got Danny sentenced to prison for suffocating Lizzie Parks after sneaking into her house, stealing money and then knocking the old lady down the stairs. "You changed the way they saw him," Danny's attorney tells Tom.

Tom agrees to see Danny. His wife has left him. Her absence leaves a hole in his life, and people like Danny prowl around the edges of a space like that, Tom tells his friend Martha, who is Danny's probation officer. Be careful, she says.

Can people change? I don't think so. I think as we get older, we become more like ourselves. Thus, Danny Miller. Still dangerous. Thus, Pat Barker. Still brilliant.
RealCities Realbooks
At the start of this unsettling novel, Tom, a child psychiatrist, is walking on a riverside with his wife in England when a young man hurls himself into the water right in front of them. Tom leaps into the river and hauls the young man out. Only later in the hospital does he discover that this young man is Danny Miller, a former patient who murdered a woman when he was ten years old. When Tom digs into what's happened to Danny in the intervening years, he discovers some unsettling secrets, as Barker sets the stage for what could be an above-the-cut revenge thriller. Barker's interest, however, lies not in the skillful manipulation of atmospheres and secrets (though there are plenty of both), but in the slow unveiling of character. Compared to Barker's powerful 1995 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Ghost Road, this is a slim work. Nonetheless, the story possesses elements of fear and sadness that linger long after the book is shut.
—Chris Barsanti

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Britain's Barker is best known here for her magnificent Regeneration Trilogy, based on post-World War I cases of shell shock; her new novel, set in a dour Northumbrian city, carries some of the same sense of dread discovery into contemporary civilian life. Years ago, when eight-year-old Danny Miller was accused of the murder of an old woman, psychiatrist Tom Seymour provided damning psychological testimony at the trial. Danny was sent away to a home and vanished from Tom's life, if not from his sometimes guilty memory. Then one day Tom and his wife, Lauren, out for a walk, thwart a watery suicide attempt. The drowning young man turns out to be Danny, and he badly needs Tom's help in coming to terms with his childhood trauma. So far, so good, and Barker, with her customary vivid writing and strong narrative pull, has set up a tantalizing series of questions. Was Danny really guilty? Was Tom's evidence responsible for his upended life? And what has the experience done to Tom and his shaky marriage? When Lauren decamps and a new child murder re-ignites interest in the old Danny Miller case, the stakes are perilously raised for both Tom and Danny. There are some wonderfully tense scenes of psychological exploration; the drear Newcastle atmosphere is palpable; and Barker's ear for dialogue is, as always, acute. In the end, however, the lack of a wider resonance of the kind that made the war books and the later Another World so memorable leaves the book, for all the quality of its craft, feeling flat. It is a convincing psychological thriller, but Barker enthusiasts have come to expect much more than that. (Mar.) Forecast: As suggested, this novel is not as powerfully realized as Barker's best books, and it will likely prove disappointing to some of her U.S. admirers, which may hamper sales down the road. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In her eighth novel Barker, author of the award-winning World War I "Regeneration Trilogy," returns to the contemporary urban Newcastle setting of Another World. On a gray September afternoon, Tom and Lauren Seymour are walking along the riverbank arguing about the state of their failing marriage when a young man, after swallowing a bottle of pills, jumps into the river in front of them. Tom rescues the would-be suicide and later discovers that he has saved Danny Miller, a convicted murderer. A child psychologist, Tom had testified 13 years earlier at the then ten-year-old Danny's trial. Did his expert testimony, as Danny believes, sway the jury's verdict and send the boy to prison? Now released and living under an assumed name, Danny asks Tom to help him confront his childhood traumas, especially the murder of the old woman for which he is blamed. Still retaining a trace of guilt about the trial (perhaps Danny was as innocent as he claimed), Tom agrees and soon crosses the border between professional detachment and personal involvement. As with Barker's other books, this is a subtle psychological tale with an edge of menace. Is Danny a victim or a manipulative psychopath? Barker also captures the grittiness and bleak beauty of England's north and its people. Unfortunately, the novel falls flat at the end, leaving the reader disappointed and dissatisfied. Not one of her best efforts. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/00.] Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A former child murderer's relationship with the psychologist whose testimony had assured his conviction and imprisonment is the core of this intriguing, melodramatic, and rather diffused eighth novel from the British author of the award-winning Regeneration Trilogy. In fact the characters of Regeneration's wartime psychotherapist W.H.R. Rivers and his bisexual patient Billy Prior have clearly influenced those of this novel's protagonist, Tom Seymour, and morally opaque Danny Miller, whom Tom rescues from drowning without recognizing him (13 years after Danny, at age 10, had murdered an elderly woman neighbor)-in a striking opening scene dominated by ironic and disturbing images of childbirth. Barker works hard at portraying Seymour's innate decency, at odds with his personal failings (as a presumably infertile and inattentive husband) and his inability to grasp the quicksilver enigma of the adult Danny (now renamed "Ian Wilkinson"): brooding, paranoid, apparently deeply traumatized, yet alert and intelligent, sedulously pursuing informal "sessions" with Seymour (because "I simply want to know what happened and why"). Their meetings are balanced by scenes depicting both Tom's unraveling personal life and his investigative visits with people involved in Danny's past, his trial, and his (ostensible) rehabilitation-including a hard-bitten probation officer, a benign reform-school headmaster, and the male teacher accused of sexually abusing the adolescent Danny. Barker keeps it moving (the thriller element here is quite pronounced, though subordinated to the central patient-therapist relationship), and the story holds our interest, even if it does seem overindebted to bothPatriciaHighsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Barker's own earlier, superior fiction. Not one of Barker's triumphs. She's a gifted realist who usually excels at putting flesh on the bones of what might seem mere case histories, but Border Crossing is really only a return visit to previously explored fictional territory.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374706043
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/01/2007
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
817,932
File size:
0 MB

Read an Excerpt

Border Crossing


By Pat Barker

Picador

Copyright © 2001 Pat Barker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70604-3


CHAPTER 1

They were walking along the river path, away from the city, and as far as they knew they were alone.

They'd woken that morning to a curious stillness. Clouds sagged over the river, and there was mist like a sweat over the mud flats. The river had shrunk to its central channel, and seagulls skimmed low over the water. The colour was bleached out of houses and gardens and the clothes of the few passers-by.

They'd spent the morning indoors, picking away at their intractable problems, but then, just before lunch, Lauren had announced that she had to get out. They might have done better to drive to the coast, but instead they donned raincoats and boots and set off to walk along the river path.

They lived on the edge of what had once been a thriving area of docks, quays, and warehouses, now derelict and awaiting demolition. Squatters had moved into some of the buildings. Others had suffered accidental or convenient fires, and were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, with pictures of Alsatians and notices saying DANGER. KEEP OUT.

Tom kept his eyes down, hearing Lauren's voice go on and on, as soft and insistent as the tides that, slapping against crumbling stone and rotting wood, worked bits of Newcastle loose. Keep talking, he said to clients who came to him for help in saving their marriages, or—rather more often—for permission to give up on them altogether. Now, faced with the breakdown of his own, he thought, Shut up, Lauren. Please, please, please shut up.

Bits of blue plastic, half-bricks, a seagull's torn-off wing. Tom's gaze was restricted to a few feet of pocked and pitted ground into which his feet intruded rhythmically. All other boundaries were gone. Though he did not raise his head to search for them, he was aware of their absence: the bridge, the opposite bank, the warehouses with the peeled and blistered names of those who had once owned them. All gone.

A gull, bigger and darker than the rest, flew over, and he raised his eyes to follow it. Perhaps this focus on the bird's flight explained why, in later years, when he looked back on that day, he remembered what he couldn't possibly have seen: a gull's-eye view of the path. A man and a woman struggling along; the man striding ahead, eager to escape, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a black coat; the woman, fair-haired, wearing a beige coat that faded into the gravel, and talking, always talking. Though the red lips move, no sound comes out. He denies her his attention in memory, as he did in life. The perspective lengthens to include the whole scene, right up to the mist-shrouded warehouses that rise above them like cliffs, and now a third figure appears, coming out from between the derelict buildings.

He stops; looks towards the river, or rather at a small jetty that runs across the mud into the deep water, and starts to stride towards it. And at this moment, seeing in memory what in life he did not see, Tom freezes the frame.

In reality, it was Lauren who first noticed the young man. "Look," she said, touching Tom's arm.

They stood and watched him, grateful to be distracted from their own problems, to be mildly interested, mildly puzzled by the behaviour of another human being, for there was an oddity about this boy that they both recognized seconds before he did anything odd. His trainers bit into the gravel—the only sound except for their own breathing—and then he was slipping and slithering over the rotted timbers of the jetty. He stood, poised, at the end, a black shape smudged with mist. They watched him drop his coat, scrape off his trainers, tug the sweatshirt over his head.

"What's he doing?" Lauren said. "He can't be going to swim."

People did swim here: in summer you saw boys diving from the end of the jetty, but surely nobody would want to swim on a raw, murky day like this. He seemed to be shaking pills into the palm of his hand and cramming them into his mouth. He threw the bottle away, far out into the water, but his body got there first. A low, powerful dive that raised barely a splash. Almost immediately his head appeared, bobbing, as he was swept further from the bank.

Already Tom was running, crunching broken glass, dodging half-bricks, jumping piles of rubble. Once he lost his balance and almost fell, but immediately was up again and running, the slimy wood of the jetty treacherous beneath his feet.

At the end, fumbling with buttons, he looked down into the dead water and thought, Shit. And realized this is what people do think who meet sudden, violent deaths. Shit. This is it. Oh bugger. Lauren came panting up and said nothing, not "Don't" or "Be careful" or anything like that, and he was grateful. "It's September," he said, answering one of the things she might have said, meaning the water wouldn't be lethally cold.

A second later, the water enclosed him in a coffin of ice. His mind contracted in fear, became a wordless pinprick of consciousness, as he fought the river that pushed him under, tossed him about, slapped him to and fro across the face, like an interrogator softening up his victim.

After the first few floundering strokes, he began to get used to the cold. At any rate he could get no colder. Looking around for the dark head, he realized he couldn't see it, and thought, Good, because now he could get out, phone the police, let them dredge the river or wait for the body to float. But then he saw the boy, drifting slowly with the current, thirty or forty feet away.

Water slopped into his mouth, skinning his throat, and then the current pushed him under. Bubbles of released breath trickled past his eyes. He kicked his way to the surface and came up closer to the boy. Purple face hidden by a fall of black hair. The current threatened to sweep Tom past, and he panicked, scrabbling at the water like a drowning dog. Then he let himself sink, and dimly, through the thick brown light, he saw the boy, hanging suspended, a dribble of bubbles escaping from his gaping mouth.

Tom grasped him by the arms and propelled him to the surface, gasping for air as they broke through and floated, the sky rocking around their drifting heads. Deep breaths. The river seemed to squeeze his chest tight. He didn't care, now, whether the boy was alive or dead. The determination to get him out had become as mindless as a dog's retrieving of a stick. The current made the turn difficult, but then he saw Lauren running along the path, and towing the boy along, his eyes full of sky and river water, he struck out towards the bank. He made slow progress at first, then, miraculously, felt the tug of another current pulling them in to land. They floated, at last, into a fetid backwater, amongst a scum of rubbish the tide had cast up. A shopping trolley, knotted condoms, tinfoil trays, plastic bottles.

Tom pushed his face through it, to reach the edge of the mud. Thick, black, oily, stinking mud, not the inert stuff you encounter in country lanes and scrape off your boots at the end of the day, but a sucking quagmire, God knows how many feet deep. Lauren reached out to him.

"Don't come in," he shouted.

A tree had been washed up on to the bank, and she clung to that, reaching out her hand. He began to inch his way towards her, keeping his weight evenly spread, dragging the boy behind him. The mud clutched at his elbows and knees.

Lauren's spread fingers seemed a mile away, and she wouldn't have the strength to pull them out even if he managed to reach her. The stench and taste of the mud filled his nose and mouth. He was aware of not wanting to die and, quite specifically, of not wanting to die like this. Heart shaking his chest, he squirmed forward, and found the new ground firmer than he'd thought. Lauren, still clinging to the dead tree, had waded in to her knees. His outstretched fingers closed over hers, and slipped. "Get my sleeve," she said. He knew he should be keeping the boy's mouth clear, but there was no way he could do that and drag him out at the same time. Another few inches and he was able to grab Lauren's coat. The effort exhausted him and he lay still, panting for a while, then started to crawl across her until his hand closed round a branch of the tree. He tested it, found it locked fast in a groyne of the bank, and slowly stood up, hauling the boy behind him out of the mud, which surrendered him with a belch of protest. Tom lay gasping, head and shoulders on the grass, feet trailing in the slime. Then he told himself the job wasn't done, and turned to look at the boy.

Black and glistening, he lay there, a creature formed, apparently, of mud. Lauren knelt beside him, supporting his head, while Tom raked an index finger round the inside of his mouth, checking that the airways were clear. Then he pressed two fingers against the slimy neck, but his hands were so numb with cold that he couldn't feel anything. He shifted his hold, dug deeper.

"Yes?" Lauren said.

"No."

"Shit."

Immediately she placed her hands one on top of the other on the boy's breastbone and pressed down. Tom tilted the head back and—aware of a momentary frisson of distaste that surprised him—pinched the nose, fastened his mouth over the flaccid lips, and blew. Through the spread fingers of his left hand he felt the ribcage rise, then he came up for breath, counted, went down again. The boy's mouth jerked under his, as Lauren pressed again. He heard her grunt with effort. This time when he came up he looked at her. Her eyes were glazed, inward-looking. Like labour, Tom thought, the irony as sour as the mud on his tongue. The boy looked like a baby: purple face, wet hair, that drowned look of the newborn, cast up on to its mother's suddenly creased and spongy belly. Distracted by thoughts and memories, Tom breathed too hard, detected from a struggle in the boy's chest that the rhythm had been lost, checked himself, counted, went down again. His breath snagged in the boy's throat. He pressed his fingers to the carotid again and thought he detected a flutter. "Got him."

They waited, Lauren's hands still clasped one on top of the other, ready to start again. One breath, then another. And another. No way of telling whether the colour was coming back. His face was masked by mud.

"All right," Lauren said. "Let's get him over."

Together they heaved him into the recovery position. She stood up, brushing pebbles from her knees, and looked up and down the path, but the damp fog was enough to keep people indoors and there was nobody to send for help.

"It's probably quicker for me to run back to the house," she said.

"No, I'll go."

"I think you'd better stay where you are."

Something in her voice startled him. He looked down and realized he was wearing a red glove. The blood had dried on his fingers, which felt tight and sticky. He had no memory of injuring himself, and felt no pain, but he must have seemed shaky, because Lauren said, "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

"Yes, go on."

He watched her set off down the road, a tall, pale, blond figure fading rapidly into the mist, which had thickened and lay over everything, smelling metallic, iron perhaps, unless that was the blood on his hand. The boy's eyes were closed. Tom took his pulse, and then, hobbling over the sharp gravel, retraced his steps to the end of the jetty and picked up his coat and the little heap of the boy's clothes. Then he stood still for a moment, looking out over the water. The mud smelt sharp and strong. He was conscious of his skin chafing against his wet clothes, and he was filled with joy.

The elation drained away as he walked back, tripping over dangling sleeves like a honeymooner in an old-fashioned farce. The cut on his arm had begun to ache. He knelt down beside the boy, wrapped the heavier of the coats round him, then huddled inside the other, muttering under his breath as he rocked to and fro: C'mon, Lauren. C'mon. He was too cold to think or feel anything.

After a few minutes he heard an engine, then voices. He looked up to see two black-clad paramedics negotiating a stretcher down the crumbling steps. They worked their way along the bank, elbowing branches of willow aside. Thank God, he could sign off now, have a hot bath, a whisky, two whiskies, climb back inside his own life.

A stocky woman with strongly marked eyebrows reached him first, followed by a bull-necked man with a ginger moustache, still breathless from the struggle to get the stretcher down the steps.

"My God," the woman said, kneeling down. "Wasn't your Saturday morning, was it, son?"

They worked quickly. Within minutes they'd removed the coat, checked his pulse and breathing, wrapped blankets round him, established that neither Tom nor Lauren knew who he was.

"We were just going for a walk," Lauren said.

"Lucky for him you were."

Gently, they transferred him to the stretcher. The small procession filed along the bank. The boy's head was hidden now, wrapped in the folds of a red blanket: a solitary splash of colour against the waste of black mud. When they reached the steps, Tom pushed his way forward and helped discreetly with the lifting. The mud on the boy's face had begun to dry and crack, like a ritual mask or the worst case of psoriasis you could imagine.

The ambulance was parked a short way from the steps. They trudged over the gravel and set him down briefly on the ground while they opened the doors. At the last moment, just as they were preparing to slot the stretcher in, the boy stirred and groaned.

"You'll be all right," Tom said, touching his shoulder, but there was no sign that he'd heard.

"You want to get that cut looked at," the woman said, gesturing at Tom's arm. "We could take you in now, you know, if you liked."

"No, it's all right, thanks. I'll see my own doctor."

"Where are you taking him?" Lauren asked.

"The General."

The engine was running. Tom bundled the boy's clothes together and handed them up to the woman. The doors slammed shut. Tom and Lauren stood and watched as the ambulance jolted along the path, weaving from side to side to avoid the worst of the potholes, and then, reaching smooth tarmac, accelerated and disappeared round a bend in the road.

CHAPTER 2

After the ambulance had gone, Tom went back to the jetty and, kneeling at the far end, managed to scoop up enough water to wash off the worst of the mud. A smell came off the river: something cold, fishy, and rotten—and then he realized it was coming, not only from the water, but from his clothes, his skin, his hair.

They didn't speak at all on the way back. He hadn't bothered to put his trainers on and the pebbles hurt his feet. As soon as they were in the house, Lauren took him upstairs to have a look at the cut. "It's not too bad," she said, peering down at it.

"They always look worse than they are," he said, impatient to have it over.

She washed his arm with a sterile solution, till the sides of the small wound gaped white, then pressed the edges together and applied a clear, waterproof dressing. She didn't speak as she worked and was breathing audibly, as children do when they concentrate. A dim memory of playing doctors and nurses with his slightly older girl cousins came back to him. He'd always been the patient, he remembered, though in those far-off games it had never been his arm that required attention. There was something erotic in Lauren's intent, impersonal gaze, and he put his free hand on her hip.

"Hot bath," Lauren said, closing the lid of the first-aid box. "Do you a lot more good than whisky."

Resigned, he stripped off his wet clothes. She was bending over the bath, stirring the water, her face slick with steam. "Do you think he'll be all right?"

"Depends what he took. Prozac, yes. Paracetamol, no."

"Do you think we should ring?"

"No," he said. "We did what we could. It's somebody else's problem now."

"I'll put these into the wash," she said, picking up his clothes.

He could see she was disappointed. She'd wanted to talk, to polish the shared-but-different experience until it acquired an even patina, became theirs, rather than his and hers. But he was used to switching off, to living his life in separate compartments. He'd learnt early, in his first few months of practice, that those who take the misery home with them burn out and end up no use to anybody. He'd learnt to value detachment: the clinician's splinter of ice in the heart. Only much later had he learnt to distrust it too—its capacity to grow and take over the personality. Splinter of ice? He'd had colleagues who could have sunk the Titanic.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Border Crossing by Pat Barker. Copyright © 2001 Pat Barker. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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