So you know, from my thoughts on Regeneration, how much of a talking-to I had to give myself to keep reading Pat Barker’s brilliant war novels.
But as much as I might be a cowardly reader, I’m also a stubborn reader, so I made sure that I was stuck alone with Eye in the Door long enough to make sure that I made good on my plans.
Trilogies, like any kind of connected writing, fascinate me.
I love the growth that comes with installments, the intimacy that develops over a series of stories/novels and I think this was even more prominent in Pat Barker’s trilogy because the characters are presented in ever-increasing degrees of familiarity.
(More often I enjoy this phenomenon in genre fiction but, for all that it’s rare in literary fiction, I appreciate it all the more.)
In Regeneration, the characters are viewed through the lens of Dr. Rivers and, often, they are unable to face their wartime experiences directly.
This isn’t to say that they are hiding from their trauma: the damage caused by their experiences is omnipresent, whether the details of that experience are shared, left unspoken, or repressed and seemingly forgotten.
In the second volume of the trilogy, however, we move closer to the characters, more often experiencing the events alongside them than having them recounted to us as past experiences they’ve had.
And this sensation is developed further in The Ghost Road, in which we actually share part of the wartime experience of one of the characters who returns to fight, the events as immediate as they can be, via a diary format that directly involves the reader in the final days of the war, which is about as involved as you can get on-the-page.
So it’s as though the natural phenomenon of a growing familiarity with the characters over a series of novels is intensified all the more with the changing narrative styles in Pat Barker’s trilogy and the degree of intimacy offered (or, inflicted) on the reader increases with every page turned.
And, ironically, this is one of the themes of the novel, how one copes with the public and personal relationships they are expected to maintain and sustain when they are coping with such horrific memories (for those who have come home) and responsibilities (for those who have returned to fight), how one reconciles intimacy with alienation.
One character experiences overwhelming revulsion in the presence of civilians, intense regarding the men who have returned from the front or taken war-work at home instead, lessened regarding the others who have not had the option of fighting for their country.
“Manning inhaled deeply, his eyes closed. ‘One of the reasons I don’t talk about it…apart from cowardice, is that it seems so futile.” Rivers asks: “Because it’s impossible to make people understand?” And Manning replies: “Yes. Even a comparatively small thing.”
But the war vehemently changes relationships even for those men who have not gone to fight. Rivers has had to set aside his medical research to treat soldiers who have returned, damaged.
He, too, feels the threat, the devastation, and he struggles with the questions that Sassoon raised at the beginning of Regeneration, forces himself to reconsider his own weaknesses whilst expected to treat these men who have experienced unimaginable horrors.
It was observed in Regeneration that the officers cared for the men under their command almost maternally and the complications of paternal love are observed in The Eye in the Door in such a way that you cannot help but ask yourself uncomfortable questions.
(This issue peaks in The Ghost Road and forces the reader to acknowledge cultural inconsistencies and betrayals that we are taught to overlook.)
One character observes his “almost painful love for his elder son, and sometimes he heard himself speaking too sharply to the boy, but it was only because he could see so much of himself. He knew the areas of vulnerability, and that made him afraid, because in the end one cannot protect one’s children.”
What kind of love is the right kind? When is it sanctioned and when censured?
And doesn’t it seem absolutely ridiculous for the law-makers to spend such an inordinate amount of time and resources debating these matters even whilst they dismiss immediately the points that Sassoon’s open letter raised, whether or not the true aims of this conflict are being or can be realized, whether the willing slaughter of hundreds of thousands is justified. If a man is considered “old enough” to fight to defend his country, to bear that horrifying responsibility, is he not “old enough”, responsible enough, to determine whom he loves?
What is the cost of having the wrong kind of love, homosexual love or an affair between two unmarried adults?
How laughable to consider, in this context, the conviction of a woman who has aborted her fetus (taken one, single life), when these same law-makers are sending thousands upon thousands to certain death in maneuvers pronounced impossible before they are executed: Pat Barker exposes many of these contradictions and presents them alongside the increasingly vivid battle experiences of characters we have known since the early pages of the first book in the trilogy.
But the questions are often left unanswered.
“Manning was bored. If he were honest all this meant nothing to him. He could see what Wilde was doing. He was attempting to convey the sense of a great passion constricted, poisoned, denied legitimate outlets, but none the less forced to the surface, expressed as destruction and cruelty because it could not be expressed as love. It was not that he thought the theme trivial or unworthy or out of date — certainly not that — but the language was impossible for him. France had made it impossible.”
By the time I had finished The Eye in the Door (and I shan’t give away the origins of the title, but it’s an incredibly powerful image, which reaches back to another scene in Regeneration…see why I love this linked-novels thing?), I knew that I would be reading The Ghost Road without needing to trick myself into it. Pat Barker’s writing is simply too good to miss.