Sunday, November 19, 2006

November Book Challenge Update 2

As part of the November Reading Challenge, I've just finished the second part of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door.

This novel is quite different to the first one, Regeneration. Where Regeneration carefully balanced the stories of a range of different characters, in The Eye in the Door Barker focuses her attention on two main characters, Rivers and Prior, both of whom appeared in the the first novel. Rivers is a psychiatrist specialising in post-war neuroses in soldiers. Prior is an officer from a working class background who has been declared unfit for service due to severe asthma and is now working in London at the Ministry of Munitions. Prior and Rivers met in the first novel at Craiglockhart, a psychiatric institution for soldiers, where Rivers treated Prior.

The Eye in the Door lacks the restraint of Regeneration but is probably more readable because of this. The focus on two characters makes it much less demanding but in some ways also less complex. There is also more gritty detail about the characters' lives, especially Prior's very varied sexual experiences. The novel opens with an encounter between him and another officer, Manning, who is himself nervous about being embroiled in a sexual controversy.

The attitude towards homosexuality on the home front is explored, with Barker contending that as a reaction to the intense focus on the importance of bonds between men during war time, there is a more conservative and punitive attitude taken to male relationships that go beyond the platonic. Authorities must make sure that love between men is the 'right' kind of love. Nearly all of the men in the novel blur this border in their relationships with other men in some way. Rivers becomes overly close to his male patients and in some senses is 'in love' with Siegfried Sassoon, a patient of his from Craiglockhart, although he does not act on this. Prior has homosexual 'encounters' but this does not prevent the very real devotion he feels to Sarah, his girlfriend. Manning maintains a wife and family for apperances sake, at the same time as sleeping with young men.

The central image in this novel is of division. Soldiers must divide their personalities in order to cope at the front, they cleave their conscience away from their bodies so that they can cope with the horrific tasks they must complete. In Prior this division has become more concrete. He begins to suffer blackouts and comes to realise that he is 'another person' during the missing time periods, himself but a more ruthless, carnal, violent self, a character born in the trenches who now threatens to take over the 'real' Prior. Rivers also describes himself as divided. He must separate his emotional self from his scientific self in order to treat his patients. This is a microcosm of an England which is divided between supporters of the war (the majority) and those who oppose it. Barker begins to explore the treatment of these 'conchies' in The Eye in the Door.

The Eye in the Door is a fascinating and readable novel. It recreates a period in history in an enlightening and interesting way, dealing with some of the less explored aspects of the war in a sophisticated way. Despite this, it lacks some of the subtlety of Regeneration. I look forward to reading The Ghost Road to see where Barker takes the story from here.


Matthew Tiffany said...

What is the "reading challenge"? Where does it originate? Is there a main site?

thanks ...

jess said...

The original challenge is on Kailana's site 'The Written World' ( The idea is to read books set in or about WWI or WWII.

Brandon said...

This sounds like quite a departure from your typical war novel. Must look this up on Amazon to find out more about it!