Monday 17 May 2010

The past is a palimpsest

The Eye in the Door is the second book in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, which tells the story of the effects - mental, emotional, physical - on young men in the midst of the first world war. Like the first novel, the second is well-written and the characters - this time, primarily, Billy Prior and Dr. Rivers, although Siegfried Sassoon shows up near the end - are just as compelling, if not more so as Barker reveals more about them. But I think Barker has tried to do just too much with this short volume and the result is a novel lacking unity, as unfortunately, I think a lot of middle novels in trilogies often do.

I think the unifying idea Barker was going for was how history is a multi-layered, unknowable, ever-changing and highly personal phenomenon; as she writes early on,
The past is a palimpsest, Prior thought. Early memories are always obscured by accumulations of later knowledge. (p. 55)
Fair, especially in what is essentially an historical novel addressing the most personal aspects and consequences of the war. The problem is, Barker tries to integrate too many of these aspects, attempting to layer and connect: various forms of mental illness including disassociative identity disorder, homosexuality, scientific experiments on patients, the history of psychiatry, class struggle, national security versus personal rights, and war resisters. And she attempts to do all this while situating Billy Prior, the protagonist and one of the only fully fictional characters in the novels, firmly within the general historical context of the war.

It's not that I think this was a bad book; generally I enjoyed it but, to borrow a neologism from Rohan over at Novel Readings, its aboutness was scattered over too many topics. I think to do justice to all these issues, and to make meaningful connections between them, The Eye in the Door would have had to have been at least 2-3 times longer than it was. I'll be interested to see how the third novel, The Ghost Road, plays out and if it can tie together the myriad threads begun in the first two. But not now. Now, I'm deep into Flaubert's A Sentimental Education which, at this point, is sadly reading like the deformed love child of a poor man's Dangerous Liaisons and a homeless man's Old Goriot.


Stefanie said...

Interesting. I've heard good things about the trilogy and have teh first book in waiting for when I have the time and the mood to embark upon it. In spite of having too much in the second book it sounds good nonetheless.

Bookphilia said...

I really enjoyed and admired the first book; I'll be interested to know what you think of it, when you find the time for it. ;)

Trapunto said...

I agree about Billy Prior being the only fully formed character, and I didn't even care for him much.

Its been a while, but the only thing I remember really liking about this book was Robert Graves' little walk-on part. Getting to see one of my favorite dead authors in a novel just tickled me pink!