Regeneration by Pat Barker
|Regeneration by Pat Barker|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Victoria Guest|
|Summary: This book is undoubtedly superb. It is not a war novel full of macho fighting and guns, it is a sensitive insight into the psychological effect the war had on previously strong young men. It is multi-layed, complicated and yet so readable. It is un-putdown-able, and if at the end your left with a feeling of wanting more, then fear not, Regeneration is a trilogy.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: May 2008|
Craiglockhart War Hospital, 1917, a hospital for treating soldiers suffering from various forms of shell shock. Army psychiatrist William Rivers is awaiting the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent to the psychiatric hospital because he has protested against the war, thrown his military cross into the Mersey, and written a 'letter of wilful defiance'. It is with this letter, which has been printed in The Times, that the novel begins - an interesting opening, as Sassoon's letter seems completely rational. He doesn't seem to be suffering from any mental illness. Why, then, is he being sent to a psychiatric hospital? Here Barker introduces her main themes; the unjust nature of war, masculinity/emasculation and madness.
Something I particulaly liked about the novel is how Barker mixes fiction and fact so seamlessly. Most of her characters existed. The war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (and Robert Graves, who isn't a patient but also features in the novel), along with the psychiatrists did spend these months of 1917 at Craiglockhart together. The novel takes you into their private world. We see the young, idealistic poet Wilfred Owen shyly giving his poems to Sassoon for advice, and we experience the gradual re-writing of one of Owen's famous poems 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' as it actually happened. This insight into the private lives of these now idolized poets is one of the reasons this novel is so special. And Barker really does probe, revealing to us the relationship between Sassoon and Graves with its homosexual undertones, and then Wilfred Owen's relationship with Sassoon, that threatens to cross that same line. Barker reveals to us these relationships with beautifully subtle moments and ambiguous words, reflecting how these men had to deal with their homosexuality at this time.
Barker's fictional characters are also wonderful. Billy Prior, who arrives at the hospital suffering from mutism and severe asthma, is one of my favourite characters from any novel, ever. It's a tribute to Barker's writing that she can make someone so vile and sharp-tongued so likable. Prior raises issues of social class within the novel. He is from the working class but has risen to the rank of officer. He talks of how there are still class distinctions in the trenches, and how small details like the particular shade of khaki of your uniform can give you away.
Billy Prior also provides the more conventional love story within the novel, as he starts to date Sarah Lumb. This allows Barker to move away from the male dominated world of the hospital and provides her with a platform to introduce us to a woman's role during the First World War. Sarah and her friends are munitions workers. They work over twelve hours a day, and the dangerous chemicals they work with turn their skin yellow. But they have found jobs that pay well, something that was difficult for a woman before the war. So women, class, sexuality; Barker gives us a clear insight into a country in the middle of a war, but shows us through individuals, giving the novel an intense and personal feel.
This book is undoubtedly superb. It is not a war novel full of macho fighting and guns, it is a sensitive insight into the psychological effect the war had on previously strong young men. It is multi-layed, complicated and yet so readable. It is un-putdown-able, and if at the end your left with a feeling of wanting more, then fear not, Regeneration is a trilogy. The Eye in the Door picks up the story from where Barker left it at the end of Regeneration, and the last book The Ghost Road concludes the story. Each book is brilliant. Read them. Anyone who hasn't experienced these books is missing out.
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