The Eye in the Door | Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Eye in the Door.
This section contains 910 words
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Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain

SOURCE: "The Suffering Classes," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4719, September 10, 1993, p. 21.

O'Faolain is an English-born Irish novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following favorable review of The Eye in the Door, she describes the novel as "an original and impressive achievement."

Pat Barker's sequel to her dazzling and disturbing Regeneration (1991) has as much scope as that book, greater buoyancy and an equally impressive ability to anchor major issues in the experience of her real and invented characters. Set in the spring of 1918, it shows the English psyche under pressure after four years of war. The first lines give the tone:

In formal beds beside the Serpentine, early tulips stood in tight-lipped rows. Billy Prior spent … moments setting up an enfilade, then … seized an imaginary machine-gun and blasted the heads off the whole bloody lot of them.

Myra stared in amazement. "You barmy bugger."

There is a bleak joke here for, while metaphors do lurk among the tulips, Myra, unknown to herself, has hit home. Prior has been close to insanity and has practised buggery, and public attitudes to both are threatening factors in The Eye in the Door, whose master theme is cracking-up.

Like the minds under scrutiny, the prose here is rarely innocent, so one stays alert and, sure enough, some lines further on, the sunlit twigs which glow like "live electric filament" recall the electrodes applied in Regeneration to the throats of shell-shocked soldiers suffering, as Prior did in that novel, from mutism. He was spared this treatment thanks [to] Dr William Rivers, who features here again, though the central role is now Prior's. Like Rivers in Regeneration, he is faced by a moral dilemma arising from the war.

Rivers's trouble was that when he cured officers who had been driven mad by their experiences in the trenches—they were sent back to those trenches. Prior's quandary is more elusive. Of working-class origins, he is an officer and "temporary gentleman". He hates the war from which he was invalided home, but feels solidarity with the men at the front and works for the Ministry of Munitions Intelligence Unit. Discomfort sharpens when he is sent to visit Beattie, who looked after him as a child. She is a pacifist who has been imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of trying to kill Lloyd George, and Prior's superiors hope to use his old friendships to lead them to wanted pacifist leaders. Class is only one of the fault-lines along which his consciousness is liable to crack, so when Beattie asks if he even knows on whose side he is, he doesn't answer. Mutism again? Worse follows when he starts to experience fugue states during which he does things he cannot afterwards recall. Meanwhile, in nightmares, the eye painted on the spy-hole of Beattie's cell door fuses with the eyeball of a dead man which Prior remembers picking up when he was at the front. Noting the connection between eyes and spies, he begins to fear that his aberrant self may have betrayed him.

Homosexuality, so dangerously akin to soldierly comradeship, is the object of a witch-hunt which threatens other patients of Rivers, including Charles Manning, with whom Prior has a sexual encounter. What is intriguing about this scene is that its vibrancy comes as much from class antagonism as from sex. Englishness, so often dimmed or diluted by irony in English fiction, is here presented in all the vigour of its flayed, cocky virulence. Prior is a marvellous creation: familiar off the page and plausible on it. Pat Barker's triumph is that she makes us understand and therefore care about him, just as she makes us care about Rivers's other balky patient, Siegfried Sassoon. Painfully proud, Prior has suffered more, and his lively mind, riven by the cleavages afflicting society, embodies society's ordeal while remaining vividly particular.

Barker draws on a battery of skills: historical intelligence, a sense of how people from up and down the social scale feel and talk, a risky readiness to freight that talk with ideas, plus an anthropologist's eye for detail. Her narrative glints with graphic bits of social lore which lighten and enlighten our apprehension of the whole. Prior, finding a housemaid's uniform in the servant's quarters of Manning's bombed house, smells its armpits—"lavender and sweat, a sad smell"—and remembers his mother, who was a housemaid, "telling him that in the house where she'd worked, if a maid met a member of the family in the corridor she had to stand with her face turned to the wall". This bizarre memory gives edge to our suspicion that his fugues have led him away from his own kind. And to be sure, the fugues are allegorical. Half England must have had them.

Barker's final flourish—historically true, she tells us in a note—replays in farcical vein the bit of history for which her earlier novel was named. This was the devotion to duty of a colleague of Rivers who cut and sutured one of his own nerves so as to study the process of regeneration. The replay is an anecdote about Churchill, when Home Secretary, spending a dutiful afternoon with an aide testing a new sort of birch on each others' buttocks. Homophobes, getting wind of the incident, accuse both men of being dangerously open to German blackmail. Prior's laughter at this leakage of mild madness ends the novel on an optimistic note. It is exhilaratingly readable; an original and impressive achievement.

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This section contains 910 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Julia O'Faolain