Review: Regeneration, by Pat Barker

They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness.  Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men(p. 48)

In Regeneration, soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon is undergoing treatment at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Scotland.  Sassoon took a public stance against the war by writing A Soldier’s Declaration, and was deemed unfit for service.  Instead of court-martial, he was sent to Craiglockhart to be treated for shell-shock.  He developed a strong bond with his psychiatrist, Rivers.  He also befriended another war poet, Wilfred Owen.

While Sassoon and Rivers are the central characters of this novel, their story is simply a device to convey a more important message about the horrific impact of war on those who spent time at the front:

One of the paradoxes of the war — one of the many — was that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was … domestic. Caring. And the Great Adventure — the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys — consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down.  (p. 107)

World War I resulted in 16 million deaths (nearly 10 million were military).  The war also had far-reaching impact through physical and psychological trauma.  Another Craiglockhart patient, Billy Prior, came to the hospital unable to speak after an incident at the front.  Others experienced terrible nightmares; many stammered.  While Regeneration is mostly about the soldiers, there is a side story about a group of young women working in a munitions factory.  One of them accompanies a friend to visit her fiancé in hospital, and comes across a group of severely injured men hidden away from the public eye:

She backed out, walking away in the sunlight, feeling their eyes on her, thinking that perhaps if she’d been prepared, if she’d managed to smile, to look normal, it might have been better.  But no, she thought, there was nothing she could have done that would have made it better. Simply by being there, by being that inconsequential, infinitely powerful creature: a pretty girl, she had made everything worse.  (p. 160)

As a civilian, she was shocked by their condition, and also keenly aware that these men would never again experience full physical and emotional relationships with women.

Every page of this book was a sobering reminder of the horrors of war.  This is the first of a trilogy; the next book (The Eye in the Door) focuses on the character of Billy Prior.  I’m looking forward to reading rest of the trilogy in the coming months.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Regeneration, by Pat Barker

  1. Thank you for your excellent review of Regeneration posted here and your comment about reading the trilogy in sequence on my blog. I had said that it would have been a richer experience to have read the trilogy in sequence – and I wish that I had….although I am keeping the book and will look for the first two volumes to read. It was one of the best books I have read in the literature about the Great War.

  2. @Literary Feline: I am sure you wouldn’t regret reading this book!

    @Lorraine: last week another blogger commented here that It seems to me that the Booker for “The Ghost Road” was something akin to the Oscar for the last Lord of the Rings film – it was really a recognition of the whole trilogy. and I think she may be right!

  3. I hadn’t heard of Orange January until this week, so I had only planned on my usual Orange-ness (after the longlist announcement) but I had planned a mini-Pat-Barker focus for the beginning of April with the 2010 approach in mind; I want to re-read Regeneration (which I agree was outstanding) and get on with the rest of the trilogy as well. Perhaps our reading will coincide! As amazing as the first book was, it always takes a bit of “working up to” for me to take on such a read, even as a re-read, even when I know how worthwhile it is.

    • Well you may have come late to Orange January, but you can still do Orange July! Orange madness occurs twice a year.

      As for Pat Barker, I’ll be reading The Eye in the Door in March …

  4. The Regeneration Trilogy was my favorite discovery of my doctoral qualifying exam reading list (I had a topic on British and Canadian Women Authors), and I have taught it twice since then. There are always a few students in every class who are just overwhelmed by love for it. And it was only on the most recent reading/teaching that I really became aware of the significance of the fact that the literary magazine in Craiglockhart is called the “Hydra” – a creature that (like the repressive traumas that the patients are suffering from) regenerates multiple heads every time you try to cut one off. It is just an endlessly rich novel.

    • Thanks for your comment Ariel. I hadn’t thought about what “Hydra” actually meant — wow. I’ll be reading the next book in the trilogy in the next week or so, and am really looking forward to it.

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