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18th May
written by Steph

I am not exactly what you would call a war fiction fan – generally in bookstores while browsing, whenever I pick up books that mention the words “Holocaust” or “WWII” on their back cover, I roll my eyes and put the title swiftly back on the shelf.  It’s not that I don’t think these topics aren’t something that deserve attention in fiction, it’s more that I think they’ve been getting too much attention in fiction. Seriously, the next time you got to a bookstore, keep track of how many books you pick up that somehow involve a character being plagued by some kind of WWII wound of any kind and you’ll see what I mean. Of the various wars, I would definitely say WWII is the one that’s been mined the most by authors in terms of plot devices, but of course there are myriad books on WWI, the Vietnam War, and the American Civil War as well. This saturation of war fiction means that as a reader, I’m extremely selective regarding which titles I will actually pick up and read.  I find that if I look at enough of these books in succession, they all start to sound the same, which is not really what you want as a reader (or a writer, I’m sure), so it takes something special for a book to separate itself from the bunch. Pat Barker’s Regeneration is one such book. It came to my attention because it is the first in a trilogy whose final book, The Ghost Road, ultimately won the Booker Prize in 1995. I was also intrigued because although a book looking at the effects of war, the majority of it takes place at a mental institution dealing with the rehabilitation of shell-shocked soldiers, and you all know I like psychological novels. Regeneration introduces us to a group of soldiers who have accrued a variety of wounds during World War I.  Initially the story seems to focus on Sigfried Sassoon, a soldier who has written a letter denouncing the war based on his experiences and who refuses to return to battle.  Rather than court marshalling him (thereby giving Sassoon’s crusade publicity), the British military instead decides to have him committed to Craiglockhart War Hospital under the care of Dr. Rivers, whose job is to rehabilitate Sassoon so that he agrees to return to the fray. During his stay at Craiglockhart, Sassoon encounters various other soldiers who are suffering intense psychological injuries, chiefly: Anderson (a former surgeon who can no longer stand the sight of blood), Burns (a soldier who, due to a traumatic battlefield incident, can barely stomach any food), Billy Prior (who suffers occasionally from bouts of mutism), and Wilfred Owen (another soldier with the soul of a poet).  Throughout the course of Regeneration, we witness the treatment of these men over the course of three-months, and in so doing, there is much reflection on the various ways in which war destroys. I thought this was a fascinating and powerful example of war fiction.  It’s incredibly moving and intelligent, chock-full of visceral images and compelling arguments against war.  One of my favorite parts was when Rivers reflect on his own role as a doctor – in normal circumstances his job is to promote mental health and his patients’ safety, but during the war, his chief role is to rehabilitate these men so that they can once more return to battle, a sentence equal to suicide for most.  Barker paints such a horrific picture of the battlefield and the impossible situations men face in war, that one cannot help but deeply empathize with the patients at Craiglockhart.  And of course, given my inclinations, I found the discussion of the patients’ symptoms in relation to their experiences to be acutely interesting. I’ve mentioned it before, but I tend to find the broken and damaged characters in fiction to be the most compelling, so I was in literary heaven here! I do think it’s worth noting that while it would be easy to boil each man down to a list of symptoms with some kind of Freudian basis (as indeed, some of the doctors attempt at times), Barker’s real success is making her characters complicated, so that they have the minds and motivations of real men.  As in real war, in Regeneration, nothing is simple. Obviously much of the book revolves around the issue of war and its effects on the human condition, but it’s also an interesting piece of historical fiction, too.  We see how madness was regarded and treated (there is one particularly horrifying scene in which Rivers consults with a fellow doctor on his treatment methods of shell-shocked men), and we also see how those not directly involved in the war are affected by its ever-looming shadow.  Through Prior, we are ultimately given a link to the women of England, which provides not only another slant on the war, but also the state of societal mores at the time.  Additionally, there’s a lot of discussion on the notion of masculinity (and the ways in which war can subvert men’s conditioned ideas of this term), sexuality, and class distinctions that were unexpected treats as well. In essence, this book has TONS for a reader to mull over and chew on. Regeneration was a book that gripped me from the moment I picked it up.  The writing was smooth and lucid, making this a book that’s easy to read in one or two sittings.  I loved its intellectual complexity, and I loved how absorbing and accessible it was. Although not similar in tone, I was reminded strongly of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which deals with similar subject matter (a soldier who does not want to return to war), and this book has definitely ignited my desire to read that book in the near future.  I’m also immensely glad that I picked up the other two books in the series, as I’m really intrigued to see where Barker goes from here. Rating: 4.5 out of 5


  1. I still haven’t read anything by Pat Barker, but plan to at some point as I’m working my way the Bookers. It is great that this book gripped you, as I was worried I might find it a bit slow. I look forward to reading this at some point.

  2. 05/18/2010

    Oh, so glad to hear that this one is good! I picked it up awhile ago after reading some really good reviews, but haven’t gotten to it yet. It sounds like it’s a completely different than most of the war fiction out there, and I also am intrigued by the psychological aspects of the book. It also sounds like it’s really accessible and easy to get into, which I also like. I am really happy to hear that this was such a great read for you! You’ve made me really look forward to getting into this one! Wonderful review, Steph, very thoughtful and enticing.

  3. mee

    I’m the same with you! I avoid books that mention “WWII” and “holocaust”, with the same reason. There are just too many of them. And as much as I avoid them, I still get glimpses of them from other books. But I avoid war books specifically just because it doesn’t interest me from any angle. So I don’t think I’m gonna run to get this book, but it’s great to know about it since like Jackie I’m working my way through Booker.

  4. 05/18/2010

    I’ve heard lots of good things about this book, but I never even realized that it’s about Siegfried Sassoon. I went through a huge Sassoon (and Wilfrid Owen) phase in high school. Now I’m really interested!

  5. 05/19/2010

    @ Jackie: I didn’t find this one slow at all, and I really think it had a great blend of reflections on war as well as more personal stories as well. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!
    @ zibilee: Obviously I’ve read some war fic in my day, but generally I’m not blown away by most of those books. But this one was really good and I found it really compelling! I hope you try it soon!
    @ mee: I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who feels like WWII is the go-to topic for writers these days. It’s really frustrating!
    @ Teresa: I’m not an expert on Sassoon, so I don’t know how much of the man depicted here is just Barker’s invention, but from my understanding, she did do quite a bit of research before starting the trilogy, so I think her aim was to portray him as realistically as she could.

  6. 05/20/2010

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this; I loved it when I read it, and the other two books in the trilogy, too. Billy Prior is one of my favorite fictional characters, ever. My favorite of the trilogy is the 2nd, The Eye in the Door, since it focuses most on Billy. I hadn’t known much about WWI when I read this, so it was both engaging as a story and education. I raced through all three. There is a movie of Regeneration, and it’s not great. However, it does have Jonny Lee Miller as Billy P, so it was worth watching, for me.

  7. 05/20/2010

    Like you, I do not often go in for war fiction especially the world wars. I see two WWs together in a synopsis and my eyes glaze over and a small voice in the back of my head says “Next.” But I loved this. Even went so far as to read the most recent Life Class just because it was the same author but it paled in comparison. Kept thinking of it as Regeneration light. Her voice is so silky and lush that it tempers the darkness.

  8. 05/21/2010

    @ Girl Detective: I really did like how this could be read as a primer on WWI, that readers did not need to be experts on the Great War in order to appreciate and learn from this novel. I thought all of the characters were really interesting in their own ways, but of course Billy shines. I’m really looking forward to the next two books, but will probably skip the film!
    @ Frances: Yup, I do the exact same thing, but I’m glad that I was able to push past that and read this even if it is a “war book”. Did you read the other books in the trilogy?

  9. 05/21/2010

    Yep. And they were all equally appealing to me.

  10. 05/22/2010

    @ Frances: Oh, excellent! Glad to hear you enjoyed the whole series!

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