Border Crossing

by Pat Barker

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

215 pages, 2001

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From the Mouths of Babes

Reviewed by David Dalgleish


Pat Barker's Border Crossing is both topical and timeless. It is topical because it broaches an issue which has been much in the news recently: the perpetration of violence by children and adolescents. And it is timeless because it provokes unanswerable questions about human nature, questions whose ramifications extend far beyond Columbine, Taber, Santee and the sites of other recent tragedies. Why does one person kill another? To what extent can children be held responsible for their actions? Should someone who murders as a child be given a second chance as an adult? Do people truly change?

The subject of Border Crossing, the inspiration for all these questions, is a young man called Danny Miller. Danny is not the novel's protagonist, but he catalyzes all that happens. When he was ten years old, Danny killed an old woman and violated her corpse; what he did to her body is never described, but "it seemed incredible," we are told, "that a child should have done that." After interviewing him, Danny's psychologist decides that the boy is fit to stand trial as an adult. He is found guilty and sentenced accordingly.

The novel begins 13 years later. Danny and his former psychologist, Tom, meet in unlikely circumstances, near Tom's home in Newcastle. (Danny cites the following adage, which seems relevant: "Coincidence is the crack in human affairs that lets God or the Devil in.") Tom learns that Danny has been out of prison for less than a year; he is depressed, troubled, suicidal. Tom invites him to come and talk to him, informally, if he thinks it would help. He does so. They resume, almost inevitably, the psychologist-patient relationship which ended with Danny's trial, and the progression of their complicated relationship forms the substance of the novel.

The novel, although written from a third-person point-of-view, takes place (for the most part) inside Tom's head. We never have access to Danny's inner thoughts. Our perspective is Tom's perspective. Danny therefore remains as unfathomable to us as he is to Tom. We never know for sure when he is telling the truth; his motives are ambiguous. It was, after all, Tom who ruled that Danny should be tried as an adult, thus condemning him to a harsher sentence. He may have renewed contact with Tom deliberately, in order to exact some kind of revenge. Or Danny may view Tom as a link to his past and thus more likely than another psychologist to be able to help him come to terms with himself. Tom attempts to get at the root of the question of Danny's motives -- and much more -- in their conversations.

There is a great deal of talk in Border Crossing. There may even be too much, but Barker does dialogue very well: the sessions between William Rivers and Billy Prior in the Regeneration trilogy are among the finest moments in her oeuvre, and the meetings between Danny and Tom have a similar intensity and complexity. Barker chooses her characters' words with care, doling them out sparingly; she brings the speakers to life by providing concise descriptions of their body language, their silences, their expressions. All the while, the shadow of past violence and the potential for future violence hovers over the two men, poised like a bird of prey, as they skirt their way around mental quicksand. Danny verbalizes painful memories and Tom tries to understand whether Danny's lack of understanding of his actions is genuine confusion or an act of elaborate self-deception. Danny is torn between need and fear, Tom between guilt-fuelled empathy and the clinician's need for detachment. The dense substrata of emotion which underlie the surface of their conversations make the exchanges fascinating.

The conversations are also fascinating because Danny is such a captivating figure. He is shown to be an exceptional young man: articulate, intelligent, charismatic, self-analytical, guarded, shifty. He is as well-drawn an individual as you are likely to find in fiction; Barker is a writer with a gift for astute, convincing characterization, but even by her standards, Danny is an exceptional creation. He was beaten and abandoned by his father, which in today's culture of victimization is often as much explanation as people need for criminal behavior. But Danny himself says: "I'm determined I'm not going to say, 'I was abused, therefore ...' Because it's not as easy as that." Indeed, nothing is "as easy as that" in Barker's world, certainly not Danny. The novel does not allow us to understand him; rather, it enables us to see him more clearly, and to empathize with him.

Tom, on the other hand, seems to be a rather tame, even colorless, individual. He provides, perhaps intentionally, a transparent window into the novel -- he does not interfere with our view of Danny. This is fine, as long as Danny is within view. When Barker shifts to Tom's interactions with his wife, mother, coworkers and friends, the novel seems less necessary. Tom's thoughts and behavior are entirely believable and sympathetic, but even the disintegration of his marriage seems somewhat banal and over-familiar. Atypically, Barker's resolutely down to earth approach does not serve her well in dealing with Tom's everyday life.

It does serve her well, however, in her probing, thoughtful portrayal of Danny. She shows us the messiness of life, rather than resorting to the tidiness of fiction. Her prose is modest and uncluttered, concentrating on the thoughts of the characters and the practical details of their surroundings, imposing no arbitrary plot twists or ideological schemata. It is social realism at its purest. Rather than diminishing what happens, her approach heightens the power of events. Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of contrivance, Border Crossing's finale is thrilling, charged with tension and urgency. The conclusion provides us with no absolutes, only uncertainties, but it is humane, fair and guardedly hopeful -- as is the novel as a whole, as is all of Barker's trenchant fiction. | May 2001


David Dalgleish is a Montreal-based writer. He writes film reviews online at