Pat Barker’s Liza’s England
(Virago, VMC #417, 1986)

This month two longstanding reading projects intersect: the Green VMCs and the Orange Prize meet.

Historically I believe there are four authors whose writing has been published on the Virago Modern Classic list and has also been listed for the Orange Prize and Pat Parker is one of them.

Yes, these are the things I think about when I’m not reading.

Hence, my Pat Barker mini-read this month, beginning with Regeneration, followed by the other two books in that trilogy (The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road) and concluding with this, which was titled Liza’s Century on original publication, the third novel from this writer who has settled into my MRE list, thanks to what I’ve read of her work this month.

Add Liza to the list of books that give aging women flesh on their literary bones: Ethel Wilson’s Topaz (in The Innocent Traveller), Elizabeth Moon’s Ofelia (in Remnant Population), the cast of Joan Barfoot’s Exit Lines, and Margaret Laurence’s Hagar in The Stone Angel. Yes, these are some of my ATF novels.

Add the story to the ranks of “Camilla”, “Trip to Bountiful”, Miss Palfrey at the Claremont (I’m meaning the Elizabeth Taylor novel here, but I realize it’s been filmed as well, which would have made this a perfect trio on celluloid I suppose), stories in which the relationship of an elderly person with a young person is transformative and inspiring, without being saccharine and Disneyfied. Yes, more of my ATFs.

But these comparisons didn’t settle in my mind until I had read a good chunk of the novel, whereas I decided that I liked Liza when I met her parrot, on the first page by name, on the second page by sight.

Any 84-year-old woman who keeps a parrot because he lost his parrot-home unexpectedly gets high marks from me, but Liza’s spirit is evident immediately and I warmed to her early in the novel (although, okay, it was a few pages after meeting Nelson, although the glimmer began then for certain).

She has the same effect on Stephen, who has actually come to her home to convince her to leave it, to go into shared accommodations which would definitely not allow parrots. Stephen wasn’t expecting to be charmed, but charmed he is.

And struck by a shared awareness, and a deeply felt need to make sense of life’s experiences, which crosses generations and experience and pulls the reader even further into these parallel and intersecting stories.

Here is a quote from the end of the first chapter:

She held up her hands with the fingers spread, as if time were streaming through them. “You have to try and make sense of it, don’t you? If it’s ever going to make sense, it’s got to be now.”
She was leading Stephen down a path he’d never expected to walk, with her or anyone. He said, carefully, “I don’t know what sense you want it to make. I’ve given up trying to make sense of mine.”
“Yes,” he said, and felt frightened because he hadn’t known till now that it was true.

It was especially interesting to read this novel after having read the Regeneration Trilogy, and also having read Blow Your House Down.

Many of the same issues appear across the novels (an awareness of class issues, the role of youth in society, mortality, sexuality, violence, disappointments in relationships – romantic and otherwise, parental responsibility and caregiving) and this reminds me how rewarding it is to read multiple works by a single author, as it seems to add depth to each reading experience.