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The Eye in the Door – Pat Barker

August 2, 2011

Pat Barker is an interesting author. She doesn’t play with the rules of the game, she does not attempt to write about thin

gs that words cannot really express. Neither of her first two novels feel like they are using techniques that are new and fresh in literature, never attempted, never before so successfully used. And yet you can’t help but feel as though there is something unique in her that makes her writing so terrifically visceral and intense. Impossible to put down.

The Eye in the Door is the second novel in her Regeneration trilogy, and as a result manages to feel resolved at its conclusion and yet completely unresolved. If I did not know that there was a third novel in the series, I would be perplexed and concerned by the ending – wanting to know more. I suppose the existence of a third novel does not change this sensation, but it means that it just may be that I get the ending that I want. I doubt it, but I hope so.

The Eye in the Door is once again a story about the largely psychological affects of the Great War on the people of Britain, particularly on those who have been sent home from the front as a result of the psychological impact of the war. It is not entirely different in its themes as the first novel (Regeneration), though I would note that the anti-war theme, covered by Siegfried Sissons, does not rear its ugly head quite so obviously. Instead, this book seems to be two things (and perhaps more) – first, a critique of enduring society during total war, and secondly, a comment about the impact of war on those who fight it.

Regarding the first: the novel is set in London, unlike the first novel which is set in far-off, isolated English countrysides. Society is in the face of the characters – people are going to work as they would have before the war, using public transit. Finding cover in a public park during a rainstorm. And yet, as the war develops and the threat of a British loss seems to grow (this is early 1918, after all), society needs to find scapegoats. Pacifists. Homosexuals. And this theme becomes the sub-plot of the story. Sometimes not played out as well as it needs to be, but the intensity of the primary plot is more than enough to maintain the readers interest.

As is common in many novels that are brave enough to acknowledge their forebears, Barker’s novel is preceded by a quote. “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…” (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson).

Barker’s protagonist, Billy Prior (a character familiar from the first book for his obstinate behaviour), sits front row and centre in this novel. He has been given a position in the Ministry of Munitions, acts as a spy for the government in searching for pacifist networks, and enjoys trysts with men while his girlfriend (Sarah, also from the first novel) is up north working in an Ammunitions Factory. She is covered in yellow dust, remnants of ammunitions chemicals. She is caring, and loving. Prior is… well, Prior.

His psychiatrist, the familiar William Rivers from the first book, develops a particular interest in Prior. You see, Prior begins to have blackouts soon after starting his position with the Ministry of Munitions. And stuff happens – uncharacteristically cruel stuff. Events take place for which he is blamed but which he cannot recall setting into motion. This plot becomes fascinating – and I don’t want to reveal anything more. At all.

The mastery of Pat Barker is how both of these themes manage to collide in her writing throughout the novel. It seems one triggers the other:

“Prior looked round the pub. Prosperous-looking men in pin-striped suits jostled at the bar, chink

ing coins, bestowing well-oiled smiles on the pretty, chestnut-haired barmaid. And Jimmy was dead. All the poor little bugger ever wanted to do was get married to… whatever her name was. And work in a bank. Prior would have liked nothing better, at that moment, than for a tank to come crashing through the doors and crush everybody, the way they sometimes crushed the wounded who couldn’t get off the track in time. The violence of his imaginings – he saw severed limbs, heard screams – terrified him.

He couldn’t eat. He would just drink up and go. But when he lifted his glass, his attention was caught by the amber lights winking in the beer. Sunlight, shining through the glass, cast a ring of shimmering gold on the surface of the table that danced when his hands moved. He started to play with it, moving his hand to and fro.

He was back at his desk. No interval. One second he was in the pub, the next sitting behind his desk. He looked across at the closed door. Blinked. Thought, I must’ve gone to sleep.

He felt relaxed,b ut without the clogged feeling that follows midday sleep. He’d been reading The Times… Jimmy Hore was dead. He couldn’t remember leaving the pub. He must have walked all the way back in a complete dream. He looked at his watch, and his brain struggled to make sense of the position of the hands. Ten past four.

Three hours had passed since he broke for lunch, and of that he could account for perhaps twenty to twenty-five minutes. The rest was blank.”

To say that I want to read the third book in this series would be an understatement – I can feel it in my bones. Even just in having written this reflection on the novel I can sense my fascination growing again. Prior is an amazing character. Sassoon comes back, and becomes more curious. Rivers is fleshed out even more in this novel than in the first – and, just as he acts as the means of the reader’s reflection in the first, he does so in this novel. I look forward to finishing this series. Once I get through Midnight’s Children, I suppose (but do I have to wait so long?).

Highly recommended.

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