The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker is the second part of her “Regeneration” trilogy. (You can read my review of the first part here.) The books follow several soldiers returned to England from fighting in the trenches of the first world war to the care of psychiatrist Dr. Rivers. Ms. Barker mixes historical figures with imagined characters to create a fascinating cross-section of people facing the difficulties of soldiers trying to cope with the mental breakdowns brought on by war.
The main characters in this volume are Dr. Rivers and Billy Prior. Billy Prior appeared to be on the road to recovery by the end of the first volume. He is not physically well enough to go back into the battlefield but he is able to work for the military on the home front. He is given a position with the Ministry of Munitions and assigned the job of dealing with pacifist groups. One reason why he is given this assignment is that so many pacifists are part of his circle of longtime friends. His superiors believe this will give him insight into finding and arresting them. There is no room for dissent in wartime England as far as those in charge are concerned. That opposition to World War I in England was so strong, may come as a surprise to many American readers.
Dr. Rivers has moved on from Craiglockhart Hospital where he worked in the first novel, to a research/treatment facility in London. He continues to work with his longtime patient poet Siegfried Sassoon who has returned to his care once again, unable to face the trauma of the battlefield after all. Siegfried and Billy both share their lives and secrets with Dr. Rivers as his patients and as his friends.
The overarching conflict the characters face in The Eye in the Door is the witch hunt against gay men and lesbians underway in England during the second half of the war. The war was not going well and people needed a scapegoat. An opportunistic politician has seized the moment to publish his claim that a list of 47,000 people was in his position, that this list came from a German source, and that the people on the list planned to weaken the English forces by leading them down the path of Sodom. His claim is taken very seriously; anyone with even a remote connection to anything suspicious is in danger of arrest. Even solders like Prior and Sassoon who are decorated heroes. (Sound at all familiar?) Dr. Rivers patient Charles Manning fears that attending Maud Allen’s production of Salome will put him at risk. Sassoon’s friend Robert Ross is under assult for his connections to the play and to Oscar Wilde. This echo of the Oscar Wilde trials adds an interesting layer of history to the novel. While millions of soldiers died in France, the English papers were obsessed with Maud Allen’s production of Oscar Wilde’s controversial play.
Ms. Barker’s writint style is deceptively simple. She tells her story in a very straightforward manner and, for the most part, without great flourishes of drama. These books remind me of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. They take their time; revelling in the accumulation of detail rather than in dramatic twists. They work to create fully fleshed out characters that have their own lives inside and outside of the novels. If Ms. Barker’s writing appears to lack poetry it is because her main concern is character, but don’t let this fool you. Her writing is terrific.
In formal beds besides the Serpentine, early tulips stood in tight-lipped rows. Billy Prior spent several moments setting up an enfilade, then, releasing his companion’s arm, seized an imaginary machine-gun and blasted the heads off the whole bloody lot of them.
In these two sentences Ms. Barker has illuminated the conflict Prior, Sassoon and soldiers like him feel when mixing with civilians. The setting is the Serpetine bridge in Hyde Park. (I had to look that up.) This area of the park has been a cruising ground for men looking to meet other men for sex which describes the bisexual Billy Prior quite well. The tulips stand in rows, formal, like soldiers on parade. But they are flowers, something completely frivolous at a time when millions of young men were dying horrible deaths in trench warfare. The rows of tulips are tight-lipped, they won’t talk just as the soldiers refuse to talk about the truth of their experience. Tight-lipped implies a refusal to say something, reveal a secret, in spite of wanting to do so. It’s also a flower refusing to open into full bloom. In the second sentence Billy Prior reacts to the flowers by gunning them down. The language Ms. Barker uses here is well chosen. Prior sets up an enfilade. (I had to look it up; it comes from the French and means gunfire directed along a row of troops.) Prior takes his arm away from his girlfriend and fires an imaginary machine-gun. Guns of the imagination figure strongly in the illnesses suffered by the men in Dr. River’s care. Blasting the heads of “the whole bloody lot of them” appears fun and games in this scene, cliched perhaps, but once the reader knows the source of Prior’s illness, of the suffering so many soldiers went through, it’s not fun and games anymore and cliched because it’s such a common occurence.
Though set in England during World War I, the “Regeneration” books have much to say to contemporary America. How will we reintegrate returning soldiers? How will we reconcile them with those who opposed the war? How will the soldiers adapt to their countrymen who did not suffer anything really while they were fighting? It must be quite a shock to come back from Iraq or Afghanistan and find Americans going about their business as though nothing was wrong at all with a brand new iPod providing the soundtrack.
We were in the dying days of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell when I first published this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I think it’s important to remember that for many years President Barack Obama continued the persecution of gay and lesbian service men and women. They were discharged, often made to pay the military for the training they had received in spite of years of service. Large numbers of those men and women were never reinstated either. Many re-applied to join the military, basically starting their careers over I’ve no idea if the rest had pensions restored or if they can now receive medical care or other G.I. Bill benefits. If you know, please leave a comment.