One of the joys of Pat Barker’s novel Double Vision is that it never quite goes where you think it’s going to go, and its characters never do what you think they’ll do. In this compulsively readable, unpredictable novel, a journalist named Stephen Sharkey finds his wife is cheating on him moments after he has finished covering the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. His trusted photographer, Ben, is killed in Afghanistan not long after.
This series of traumatic events leads Stephen to leave his job and move to a cottage in the country, on the property of his brother’s house. Living nearby is Ben’s widow, Kate, a sculptress who, on top of losing her husband, has also recently suffered a nasty car accident that has left her struggling to complete a sculpture of Christ in time for a tight deadline. She enlists the help of a mysterious gardener, Peter, in completing the figure.
Meanwhile, Stephen begins an affair with Justine, his nephew’s 19-year-old au pair.
It’s a twisty, somewhat soapy concept for a novel, but Barker is always taking her story in new directions. Characters couple up unexpectedly, reveal bizarre dimensions, some of them never fully explained. In this novel, as in life, the characters’ actions are often dictated by happenstance. People are always stumbling upon some secret, learning something that they shouldn’t, and then having to deal with the consequences.
Because of that, Barker’s characters have unexpected depth and dimension. Kate, for instance, isn’t merely a clichéd lonely widow, but a stubborn, creative, strong woman with an undeniable passion for her art. Justine is another fascinating character, at first seeming to be just a nubile fling for Stephen but revealing increasingly amazing reserves of resilience and bravery as the story wears on. And Stephen is a compelling protagonist – confused, conflicted, but fundamentally decent and so respectful of the women in his life, you’re left wondering what really went wrong with his marriage (we never learn).
Barker’s book is tantalizing from start to finish. The only drawback is that some of the loose ends are never tied up, and we’re left wondering what some of the characters’ actions mean. But that’s okay. There are worse things than wanting to know more about the characters’ lives after the last page has been turned.