Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

In a body of work that has accrued to nine novels, Pat Barker has staked out a distinctive thematic field. It is territory that she returns to again and again in her fiction: the legacy of war, particularly World War I, which brought forth her boldly imaginative “Regeneration Trilogy” and the more effective interludes in “Another World”; the sharp, messy, difficult and durable nature of British working-class family life (“Union Street,” “Blow Your House Down”); and the complex rhythms of the psychotherapeutic relationship. The latter, for Barker, are a conduit to certain obvious things--self-knowledge, knowledge and understanding of the past, recovery (if imperfect) from battle shock and other kinds of trauma--along with a notable less obvious one: her own form of narrative craft. Psychotherapy as a way of storytelling, and story-making: After having hovered over several of her earlier novels, it takes center stage in “Border Crossing.”

Because of its self-consciousness, because its goal is to reveal what is hidden and to state outright what is surmised and supposed, the therapeutic conversation would seem to be at odds with the way we have come to expect traditional novels to present their stories: naturalistically, and through a variety of codes that the reader solves as he advances through the chapters. Metaphorical and figurative language; setting, tone and gesture used to suggest interiority; depicted rather than dissected behavior; the internal reflection that reveals a man’s nature without always spelling it out with a primer’s specificity: All these would seem to be potentially undermined by the therapeutic exchange.

Not in Barker’s fiction. In her fiction, at its best, the illusion that we are in an actual rather than a highly contrived world remains largely intact. It has helped, certainly, that when Barker first presented the analytic relationship, in “Regeneration,” she was bringing to life one of its early practitioners, Dr. William Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, who saw Siegfried Sassoon, Billy Prior and other soldiers of the Great War and sought to repair these scarred and haunted men, preparing them to return to battle. At the dawn of the 20th century, therapy was still crepuscular itself, and Rivers’ approach--to his patients as to his own anguish and concern about the treatment he was administering--was judicious, insightful, evolving rather than set or static. Free of cliche and archness, Rivers’ psychotherapy felt authentic, and it swept the scent of mothball off the historical novel, making the past feel as proximate and pulsing as the present.


“Border Crossing” is not a historical novel. Unlike “Another World,” it does not concern itself, except tangentially, with the legacy of war. It does, however, attend very closely to the psychotherapeutic relationship, with on one side Tom Seymour, an analyst who specializes in violent children (he is writing a book that investigates their moral sense), and on the other Danny Miller, a 23-year-old college student who, 10 years before the story opens, was convicted of murdering an old woman named Lizzie Parks. Around the time of his trial, Danny had several sessions with Tom, who pronounced him fit to be tried as an adult. Now, after a decade in prison and reform school, Danny has been freed and given a new identity. When we first meet him, he is attempting to take his life by jumping off a jetty and into the wintry, sewage-swirled River Tyne in Newcastle.

Tom and his wife, Lauren, a painter, are walking by the river, on a brief recess from sorting out their unraveling marriage, when they see Danny drop into the water. Unaware of who he is, Tom dives in after him and retrieves the boy from this “coffin of ice.” In the confusion of the rescue, Danny disappears into the ambulance with Tom’s jacket and Tom returns home with Danny’s; soon the two come together and remark on the most unusual coincidence of their accidentally crossing paths--or at least Danny does: “You know, when something like this happens,” he tells Tom, “it makes you realize things aren’t just random. There is a purpose.”

As with most things we learn about Danny, there seems to be an unshakable sense of foreboding in the apparently accidental nature of this encounter. Danny soon asks Tom to agree to see him professionally, to help him look again at this troubled past, and after some deliberation Tom agrees. “I don’t want therapy. I don’t want to ‘feel better.’ I simply want to know what happened and why,” Danny tells Tom. “Whenever I’ve imagined myself trying to talk about [the murder], it’s always been with you.”

And so Tom and Danny talk. In what is, by now, Barker’s trademark spare, pointed dialogue, the two men circle around Danny’s past, moving from his years in reform school and prison to his feelings about the trial to his painful, abused childhood, to--in time--the day of the murder itself.

This approach to storytelling--the novel as a psychotherapeutic interview--is not confined to the conversations between Tom and Danny. It is the model, adjusted as necessary, for many of the other encounters in the book. Once Tom receives permission from Danny to probe into all aspects of his past, their sessions alternate with visits to the key players in Danny’s life. Tom goes to see Danny’s parole officer and Tom’s good friend Martha, who strikes another ominous note by telling Tom that Danny “thinks if it wasn’t for you, he wouldn’t have been in court at all, he’d have been dealt with as a child.” Danny’s lawyer, Nigel, explains that the forensic evidence really only connected Danny to the scene of the crime, further supporting Tom’s possible role in Danny’s conviction. At Long Garth, the reform school where Danny had spent seven years of his life, Elspeth, the wife of its director, shrewdly observes that Danny was expert at controlling his relationships with adults: He called them by their first name; he was often alone with them; he made them think they had broken through his strange, stony, impenetrable facade and actually been of help. “And you see the really devilish thing? Danny wasn’t breaking the rules. They were. He was very, very good at getting people to step across that invisible border.”

It is a border that, inevitably, Tom himself soon begins to cross with Danny. With his own life in turmoil, his guilt over the past heightened and bubbling away, the therapist begins to lose control over the man and the situation. Danny visits Tom’s house, which is also his office, at inopportune moments, as for example when Lauren has come to collect her belongings after the couple has agreed to a divorce. Danny is at one point so distraught that, in what amounts to the novel’s most suspenseful, if baldly melodramatic, sequence, Tom allows him to spend the night on the sofa, with results that don’t quite fulfill the anxiety Barker has been carefully allowing her story to generate up to this moment.


For stretches of the novel, the reader feels an effective tightening in the narrative as it explores Danny’s fundamentally unknowable nature, including the possible scope of his anger toward Tom and his growing borderline psychotic state. But the big scenes in “Border Crossing” remain less successful than the smaller, closely observed ones, the penetrating conversations, the sharply cut cameo portraits, the trenchant asides (“One of Tom’s fears was that people who remain childless never really grow up”; “When it comes to your parents you might as well stick with the myths, because you’re never going to get at the truth”) that Barker seems so effortlessly to breathe onto the page. This may have something to do with the fact that, with this novel, she appears to be in shaky relationship to her genre: The milieu here is neither William Trevor’s (though, for a time, it shares an atmosphere of menace with a book like “Felicia’s Journey”), nor is it that of a conventional detective story, despite certain tropes of the thriller Barker tries on for size.

In the end, Barker is too deeply rooted in the human--and the humane--to give herself over fully to these other approaches. Among the players in Danny’s past whom Tom goes to visit is Angus MacDonald, a writing teacher at Long Garth who recognized Danny’s unusual “bright, cold intelligence”--and fell in love with him along the way. MacDonald tells Tom that he encouraged Danny to write to thaw him out, not because he believes in the redemptive powers of the experience: “The whole idea of writing as therapy makes me puke. It amuses me sometimes to think about the talking cure, and how it’s become a whole bloody industry, and how little evidence there is that it does a scrap of good.”

On the evidence of “Regeneration” and “Border Crossing” Barker would seem to differ, with MacDonald’s second point at least. The talking cure remains, for her, a conditional but nevertheless hopeful endeavor: Danny’s troubled childhood is explored and recounted for the insights it offers into his darkly problematic adolescence and for the curative powers associated with the process. Do all the dots connect into a convincing figure? Not really. Does the childhood explain the adolescent, and the adolescent the adult? No. But it seems clear that, for Barker, formulating, expressing and examining one’s stories is an indispensable human--and artistic--enterprise. It’s impossible to know whether she sees writing as a form of therapy, but she certainly recognizes the efficacy of therapy in writing. And in living.