As the second novel in Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy, this one continues to explore the depravity, insanity and outright pathos of war as it warped and destroyed the collective soul of the British nation in W.W.I. The story is an interconnected tale of a host of pathetic individuals - among which is an unhappy imprisoned suffragette, a troubled intelligence officer - all who have become the victims of meat-grinder circumstances well beyond their control both on the homefront and out in the trenches. The awful memes of ordinary people being put through the mill of a senseless war, systematically dehumanized by the most brutal acts of state-run terror, makes for a disturbing read. This is a poignant account of how the ravages of war can turn the world upside down by radically changing people's morals and feelings. This part of the trilogy looks at Prior's life as a person officially assigned to keep a close eye on society's dangerous malcontents and flakes. It just so happens that the people he is to watch are connected to his past. Nothing is straight forward in war in the search for traitors. Nothing is spared as to how far the military and the government is prepared to sustain this evil enterprise, even if it destroys minds, turning friends against friends, impoverishes individuals and families, and silences true love. Playing in the background, in a not-too-subtle fashion, is a reminder that one of Oscar Wilde's not so nice plays, Salome, is playing in London and has attracted the attention of the authorities as to its potential to unsettle the nation so close to 'winning' the war. This piece of theatre is there to remind the reader that, ironically, even Herod's evil kingdom back then knew when to draw the line on acts of senseless cruelty. The reference in the title to the eye in the door shows how intent the nation's leaders are in making everyone aware they are being watched for the least suggestion of treason. As in the case of the poet Sassoon, one of the story's main characters, maybe the only place of true safety in this whole mess is to return to the killing fields where the eyes of an intrusive state can't penetrate.
If you haven't read Regeneration, you are making a big mistake if you read The Eye in the Door before Regeneration. Regeneration sets the stage for The Eye in the Door and provides much background information that you need to appreciate this book.
Those who liked the first book in the Regeneration trilogy, Regeneration, will absolutely adore The Eye in the Door. The characters from Regeneration return, and you have a chance to find out the consequences of the treatments they received from Dr. William Rivers in Regeneration. Pat Barker builds on the tensions, damage, doubts, and despair of mid-World War I to show how much more desperate matters were for the British by the spring of 1918.
In developing these themes, Pat Barker does a masterful job of explaining how a soldier has to operate both by emotion and by objective distance in order to function. From there, she helps us use the crucible of war to see how that duality is important to everyday functioning for all people.
As the title indicates, the book builds on a central metaphor of everyone being under observation as doubts build about Britain's ability to win the war. Those on the margins are most under pressure and at greatest risk.
I thought that the portrayal of Lieutenant Billy Prior was brilliant. He comes across as the kind of complex, interesting character that can help us learn a lot about Ms. Barker's messages for us. The eye metaphor is nicely developed in the context of Billy's life.
Brava, Ms. Barker!
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 28, 2003
People existing against a war background-normal people doing normal things whilst shouldering the burden of their experiences, their fears and societies norms and expectations.
A lovely book that always has the lightest of touches in the darkest of moments. Nothing is simple and nothing is complicated, but everything is ambiguous and dwarfed by "the front" and what is expected.
The writing is always simple, but the ideas, concepts and dilemmas dealt with are complex and impossible to resolve. Class and duty are themes; the most interesting theme in my opinion is that of being a pacifist, a father figure to your men and a violent war hero simultaneously. (By the nature of things, war heroes are violent.)
My one regret is that I have only just realised that this book is part of a trilogy and that I have read it out of sequence... although on the positive side it means I have two more books to explore. I would strongly recommend this book; I have just gone and bought one of Sassoon's books as a direct result of it awakening school hood poems by him and Wilfred Owens.
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 December 5, 2002
Pat Barker's magnificent trilogy is not only a profound contribution to our literature on the First World War - it is also one of the most distinguished works of contemporary fiction in any genre. Barker doesn't skirt around the central issues with a po-faced patriotic reverence, but rather tackles them head on: the agonizing contradictions of patriotism and protest; the politics of social and self-surveillance; the homoerotic undertones of trench camaraderie, especially among the war poets; the horrendous physical and psychological costs of war; and the sense of personal duty which drives us, nonetheless, to fight. These are big themes, but Barker's talent is to handle them in a way which makes her novels feel like an easy read. They are accessible, engaging, seemingly simplistic in their style - but in the end profoundly moving in a way which only the highest literature aspires to be. The trick is that she makes her characters so real for us - Prior and Rivers, the consistent protagonists, are completely human. She makes us experience a world-historical incident on a very human scale. Harrowing, intelligent, moving and funny, Barker has crafted a fictional epic that will stay with you forever. Walking through Sydney's Central railway station months after finishing these books, I came across the honour boards listing the hundreds of railway men and women who died in the Great War. Barker's books made the war real for me, made these lives - these deaths - real. If they do nothing more than that for you, they've succeeded.
on November 22, 2000
If "Regeneration" were to be considered the story of Dr. Rivers and his patient Siegfried Sassoon, "The Eye In The Door" might be said to be the story of the same doctor and another patient, Mr. Billy Prior. I also would say that the opening comment is an oversimplification. The first two volumes of this trilogy are amazingly rich in detail and personality, and part three, "The Ghost Road", is proving to be no different.
The title of this review is a quote expressed by Prior early in his treatment with Dr. Rivers. It describes a fictional character, but it also demonstrates Pat Barker's brilliant use of words. She has the ability to transform a cliché, to make it fresh, her own, as when she speaks through a female character, "In her world, men loved women as the fox loves the hare. And women loved men as the tapeworm loves the gut." A bit more thought provoking than, men are from Mars, women from Venus.
Mr. Prior becomes an amalgam for many, and perhaps most of the issues the first two books explore. He also through his complex of issues, greatly affects Dr. Rivers. The Doctor cannot maintain complete detachment; one scene even has them switching roles, with Prior drilling into the painful childhood of his advisor. The relationship between Rivers and Prior becomes so psychologically intense, the doctor finds himself dreaming the nightmares "of others". He starts to identify with a critical event that may have damaged Prior as a child. The timing and location of their respective young fears is amazingly similar.
Ms. Barker seems to use the doctor as a metaphor for his patients and their collective experiences. Prior has more going on within his world than anyone could be expected to cope with and remain sane. Prior exists in many states, almost all of which are in impossible contradiction. His mental state eventually reaches a point where his mind makes a severe adjustment in an attempt to cope. With him Ms. Barker has created one of the more complex characters in fiction.
Prior is a decorated soldier who returns to the War four times. Prior is a man whose childhood friends are pacifists. He meets with several and contrary to his duty as a soldier does not turn them in. He tries to have one objector released from jail, the justification is perjured testimony, the truth is quite different.
This installment takes place during the trial when Lord Alfred Douglas made his famous statement in court, that Robert Ross a friend of Oscar Wilde, was "the leader of all the sodomites in London". This too was the time of the black book with 47,000 names of "degenerates" that were "causing" the War to turn against England.
In the midst of all of this, Prior is working for the Government, he is a soldier, he empathizes with pacifist friends, helping them while denouncing their philosophy. He is a bisexual male who also is engaged to marry. His relationships with men do not abate when he decides to wed. He has been wounded and sent back to fight, he has been treated for shellshock and has been sent back to fight, and he is an asthmatic who is sent to fight in the gas of Flanders, twice.
This is one patient amongst many Dr. Rivers has and continues to treat. He has begun to suffer in ways that were once the purview of his patients. His feelings about the War do not change; at least he believes they do not. And guilt becomes a catalyst for his own terrors and nightmares.
And to make sure the reader is kept working, Ms. Barker brings back Siegfried Sassoon, a new version of him perhaps, but extremely interesting as well.
The small number of reviews surprised me for so acclaimed a work. My thought is that some material, while important to the story, is just too graphic for some readers. Ms. Barker holds nothing back when describing the horror of War, so it would have been inconsistent to back off on issues or actions that are potentially contentious for some. As I said in my review of the first book, I make no judgment on the subjects or readers. I believe the writer wanted to bring the full force of all aspects of her work to the reader, and for that I believe her courage is to be admired. She does not vary the intensity to the sensibilities of what may be an issue for some, she writes her books, as she needs to tell her story, she is a gutsy lady.
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.
on July 19, 1997
I have read Regeneration, Ghost Road and The Eye in the Door. I was struck by the passages in The Eye which described the process of regeneration. Learning to discern the source of pain, emotional or physical, and dealing with it consciously or through our dreams, are deeper lessons to be found in these historical novels. Integrating cerebral and emotional responses is a endeavor that we should each pursue. This fiction does in fact provide the reader, along with Dr. Rivers, with a vocabulary to address our duality whether it be in the context of World Was I or Vietnam or our daily efforts to understand our deepest motivations, stimulii, responses and perceptions of life. Ironically, I was reading Estes' Women who run with the Wolves at the same time I was enjoying these novels. The novels by Pat Barker illustrated the concept of Descanos, marking our "deaths" and failures which halt our lives unexpectedly. Acceptance, integration and forgiveness are the ultimate goals once the source of our pain is identified. By understanding the lessons that Barker teaches in her novels, I understand that although the world may be falling to pieces outwardly, we can heal ourselves with the assistance of our patient teachers by looking calmly at the situation that causes us rage and sorrow, projecting ourselves into the future, and from that vantage point deciding what would make us feel proud of our past behavior, and then acting that way. Learn about our darker sides. Barker's historical approach illuminates our universal truths and illusions because in a broad sense the emotional and physical problems of Dr. Rivers and his patients are our problems today. Jennifer Stuller Nehrbas
on May 22, 2001
I really believe that the most difficult task of any writer would be to write a historical novel, particularly one set during war years, that is fresh and void of cliche. In this regard, Pat Barker is truly amazing. Both "Regneration" and "The Eye in the Door" offer fresh voice and lack sentimentality..."Regeneration" and "The Eye in the Door" are intense and searchingly deep. Barker has written about psychological problems in terms a layman can grasp. She has written passionately of a war often over-shadowed by successive wars and of the pain and fear more comfortably white-washed by patriotism.
These books will engender fresh compassion for those veterans who have bravely fought wars abroad, witnessing and suffering untold horrors and for those who bravely fought at home by questioning the sanity of what politics demanded and were branded cowards for their beliefs.