The Eye in the Door is the second novel in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The trilogy follows real-life and fictional characters experiencing the turmoil of World War One. The books primarily focus on the fictional Billy Prior, who, because of his time in the trenches, is battling with what is now termed PTSD. His psychologist, Rivers, is based on a real man who treated patients such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – the poets also make appearances in the trilogy.
The Eye in the Door picks up where Regeneration left off. Prior and Rivers are now in London; Prior is working for the government and Rivers is treating patients. Revealed in Regeneration is the reason for Prior’s former muteness: a shell blew up his friend and in a traumatised state picked up his eyeball – likening it to a ‘gobstopper’. Prior’s traumatic memories return when, visiting a woman he used to know in prison, he sees a painted eye on the prison door, so that the prisoner can never tell if they’re actually being watched by a guard or not. Prior starts losing passages of time, he can’t remember where he has been and what he has done, so he decides to see Rivers again. But Rivers has his own traumas to attend to. Very often patients don’t think of people in the medical profession as the healthy ones when that may not be true. Barker emphasises that although Rivers is a good doctor, he can never be a perfect man.
Barker writes with a lot of compassion and a lot of knowledge. Interestingly, The Eye in the Door finds the characters outside of the moderated hospital environment we found them in in Regeneration, so the reader can see how important social standing was at this time – and that this is an era when the seemingly solid roles of class and gender were confused for the first time. Prior finds himself conflicted between his working class background and the life he lives in London, he feels out of place sometimes. This is also seen in Prior’s girlfriend, working in a factory, and in his bisexual tendencies. The First World War blurred all sorts of lines socially. In The Eye in The Door, then, Pat Barker’s knowledge of the war really comes through. She applies psychological insight to these men – techniques that were in their infancy then are common knowledge to us now. I find the sociological and psychological advances of the time fascinating – especially in contrast to the horrors in which they were conceived.
I really want to read the final book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, soon. For me, The Eye in the Door felt very much like a novel in the middle of a trilogy – The Ghost Road must tie up many of the threads seen in the earlier two novels. I would definitely recommend reading Regeneration first – I doubt The Eye in the Door would make much sense without it. I love Pat Barker’s writing and it feels like an appropriate time to be reading her First World War novels.