The Eye In The Door by Pat Barker (1993) 280 p.
The second novel in Pat Barker’s WWI Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door takes place in early 1918, when the war is going poorly for Britain and the nation is gripped by a scapegoating campaign against pacifists and homosexuals, led by right-wing MP Noel Pemberton Billing. This novel focuses less on the real characters of Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon (though they’re still present) and more on the entirely fictional construct of Billy Prior, a young officer who was formerly treated for trauma at Craiglockhart and is now working as an intelligence agent for the Ministry of Munitions in London.
I enjoyed this novel a fair bit more than Regeneration, because it expands the scope beyond the corridors of Craiglockhart and examines more fully how the First World War affected British society. It’s particularly interesting that, as in Regeneration, there are no scenes actually set at the front; we see this landscape of muddy trenches and shell craters quite often, but only ever in dialogue and memories and flashbacks and nightmares.
This was a dreadful place. Nothing human could live here. Nothing human did. He was entirely alone until, with a puckering of the surface, a belch of foul vapours, the mud began to move, to gather itself together, to rise and stand before him in the shape of a man. A man who turned and began striding towards England. He tried to call out, no, not that way, and the movement of his lips half woke him. But he sank down again, and again the mud gathered itself into the shape of a man, faster and faster until it seemed the whole night was full of such creatures, creatures composed of Flanders mud and nothing else, moving their grotesque limbs in the direction of home.
Barker has no illusions about the war – it was a brutal and ugly and above all pointless waste of human life, conducted between malevolent empires. This may seem like an obvious thing to say when these books were written in the 1990s, yet even today there are idiots who think that soldiers in WWI were “dying for our freedom;” twisting the circumstances of a past war to fit the political objectives of our modern wars. Britain, like most Western countries at the time, was a deeply unfree and undemocratic society in which women couldn’t vote, homosexuality was a jailable offence and the Irish people (right on Britain’s doorstep – let alone the people of Africa, India and South-East Asia) were brutally oppressed.
The Eye in the Door shows us the ugly side of British society in those years – the conscientious objectors who were beaten or arrested, whose families were shunned and had human shit shoved through the letter boxes, whose sons were dragged into prisons and beaten and kept naked in winter with a folded uniform left at the base of their beds. A society in which, even though a desperate war was going on, London’s newspapers were full of news about a ridiculous with-hunt of “sodomites,” spearheaded by a man later certified insane.
I’m glad I stuck with this series; I’m still not a massive fan of Barker’s writing style, but I appreciate her determination to uncover every unsanitary corner of a horrific time in history, and to give a voice to the segments of society our current leaders would prefer us to forget, even today, when we should know better.