on January 23, 2004
THE EYE IN THE DOOR (spoilers)
Ms Barker's epigraph, a quote from Stevenson, sets the tone: "It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man. I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both."
I am hampered in critiquing the trilogy, since I've read only the first two works, REGENERATION and THE EYE IN THE DOOR. The first of these concentrates on the relation between the enlightened, humane Dr Rivers and the war hero/war protester Siegfried Sassoon, who has been labeled a war neurotic ("shell-shocked") in order to avoid confronting his rational case against the war. Both Rivers and Sassoon are historical characters who the author effectively fictionalizes (their dialogues, etc).
The second novel focuses on the relation between Rivers and Billy Prior, a relatively minor character in the first. The book is set on a wider stage than REGENERATION, which was confined to the (real) mental hospital of Craiglockhart in Scotland. Here we are in London, during the crisis produced by the initial success of the Germans' spring offensive in 1918. As happens during defeats, the search is on for scapegoats seen as undermining the war effort, groups like pacifists and ... who are seen as destroying the nation's "moral fiber." Ludicrously, the leading anti-... crusader, lays the blame on the Germans, who are said to have sent homosexual agents over before the war to corrupt English youth.
Billy Prior, on medical leave from the front, works for a counter-intelligence agency, but his loyalties are divided, since his earliest friends are pacifists and "conchies" (conscientious objectors). The result of these divided loyalties is a split consciousness, where the fugue state ("Hyde") takes over at times, doing things that the "daytime" Billy is not aware of, but whose consequences nevertheless he must face. It is this split consciousness that Rivers must deal with-and on one occasion, he deals directly with "Hyde," who speaks of Billy in the third person.
At the crisis of the novel, Billy's alter ego betrays his closest friend, something that the daytime Billy at first denies doing, but which he finally comes to suspect he has actually done. Rivers treats the psychological phenomenon by making Billy see that it is basically Oedipal, that he actually wished to kill his father, who had, in Billy's sight and hearing, beat and abused his mother. One manifestation of this hatred is "Hyde's": punching the agent provocateur Spragge, who looks like Billy's father. To complicate the issue, his father is a socialist/pacifist, a fact which may contribute to Billy's ambivalent attitude to his pacifist friends, one of whom he helps, as he betrays the other.
Sassoon make another appearance here, having gone back to France (partly at Rivers' suggestion), and once again been wounded (by friendly fire). But Sassoon's appearance doesn't seem to contribute to the plot of this novel, tho it may have a role to play in the trilogy as a whole. (Maybe his divided consciousness is relevant, since he was very effective at killing Germans, but at home becomes a "dove") Another seemingly extraneous thread is Manning, one of Billy's sex partners.
But basically a rich novel, recalling a key point in Western history. In many ways, WWI was more traumatic than WWII, since it occurred after almost a century or relative peace in Europe. And, as Barker makes clear, WWI was harder on soldiers than was WWII.
Trivia: Why were French troops show on the covers of the paper editions of the first two novels? They play no role in the novels themselves (tho they played the major role on the Western Front).
on November 19, 2003
THE EYE IN THE DOOR is the second installment in Pat Barker's marvelous Regeneration trilogy. In this volume the principle characters of Dr. Rivers and Prior have left Criaglockhart War Hospital and are now living in London. Although Dr. Rivers has taken a new position treating shell-shock soldiers who have returned from the front in France, he continues to keep in touch and treat his former patients from Criaglockhart, especially Prior. Amidst the bombing and blackouts of wartime London, Prior continues to suffer from war neurosis as he embarks on solving a mystery that involves his childhood friends and acquaintances. He is confronted by England's societal fixation with fear and scapegoating of those who are believed to deter from the war effort (mainly war deserters and homosexuals). Individuals are often forced to hide their true attributes from society during this time of societal finger pointing and blaming. As in the previous volume of this trilogy, the characters of Prior and Dr. Rivers are well developed and nuanced. I continually enjoy reading about their trials and tribulations, and look forward to reading the third and final volume in this trilogy.
on November 3, 2000
The first world war exerts a strange facsination for British writers. In recent years Alan Bleasdale (in television's The Monocled Mutineer), Sebastian Faulks, and Pat Barker, have all produced fine work relating to the war to end all wars. Even a fine genre writer like Reginald Hill (in The Wood Beyond) writes about the era.
The reasons for turning to this era are manifold. For the United Kingdom it marked the end of the nineteenth century, the beginning of the twentieth, in that the role of women in society, and that of the working class, changed forever. Emancipated, and with a democratic voice, British politics then changed.
Pat Barker's early novels engage with big social questions. Her novels set in northern English towns consider the class structure, and feminist issues, amid a "gritty" landscape. Her "Regeneration" trilogy is something of a departure in ostensible subject matter - but considering British social history, one can see why Barker turned to the era.
The Eye in the Door is the middle book in the trilogy. It is probably the poor relation in the trilogy, but is in many ways the most interesting novel. Where, Regeneration is set among the recuperating servicemen at the Craiglockhart hospital, this novel is English-based. Set in and around a government ministry in London and the north of England, it evokes a sense of society at the time. Barker also merges fact and fiction - using real life characters (such as the poet Seigfreid Sassoon and Dr W H Rivers) and situations (a libel trial based on a supposed list of deviants in the upper echelons of British society), and merging them in to her fictional backdrop.
This is aided by the central character, Billy Prior. Prior is working class, but an officer. Bisexual, he has no shame about his sexuality. Prior is a masterful character. Having been anicllary in Regeneration (which focussed on the relationship between Seigfried Sassoon and Rivers), Prior becomes the focus of the trilogy. His character out of sorts in both worlds he inhabits (from his own home and as a working class boy in the ministry).
My favourite character, though, is W H Rivers. Rivers was a great man. he developed more sensitive techniques to treat those suffering form shell shock, and his work at Craiglockhart was of tremendous importance. In the novels, his quandary in having to cure those damaged by war to send back to the front, to the root of their injury, is brought into sharp focus. This novel sketches in more of Rivers background (pyschological and emotional).
There is much haunting imagery in Barker's novel. The central image of the eye in the door - the eyehole in a prison door where the prisoner is kept in solitary confinement - is wonderfully drawn, permeating the dreams of Prior. The imagery of those kept in solitary confinement for their objection to the war will live long with me.
Barker is also a fine convincing writer of dialogue.
This novel is highly recommended. Although, it can be read as a stand alone novel, I think its impact is heightened when Regeneration has been read.