Review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

For diligent readers of The Book Habit (otherwise known as ‘mother’), this review will be noted as out-of-sync with my recent reads. Pat Barker’s Regeneration has succeeded in leap-frogging the backlog of books currently awaiting review. There are two reasons for this: (1) It is a truly fantastic work that has earned priority status; and (2) My mum cannot borrow it until my in-written notes have served their purpose. I am sure that, given the validity of these points, you will forgive the warped schedule. Regeneration is a book that I have been intending to read for a long time but was finally provoked into picking up following an expert recommendation (thank you, Maggie) and a trip to London’s famous Daunt Books (Literary Excursion post to come). Having consumed the book in two sittings, Regeneration is unquestionably one of the most powerful and evocative novels I have read.

The book is the first in Pat Barker’s Regeneration series, taking place during the First World War. Set in Scotland’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, the novel follows the work of psychiatrist William Rivers as he attempts to treat shell-shocked and broken-down soldiers. Regeneration gives particular focus to the case of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, sent to Craiglockhart for treatment following a declaration of dissatisfaction with the war’s objectives. As the relationship between Rivers and Sassoon develops, Rivers begins to question his role. Charged with returning debilitated soldiers to active duty, Rivers is forced to confront the conflict between the demands of war and the personal price paid by his patients.

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest…I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party  to prolong these sufferings for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”

Regeneration is a work of truly remarkable insight. It is no secret that I enjoy fiction set during the First and Second World Wars, no doubt a product of family experiences during both crises. But to read a novel that delivers a truly unique consideration of these events is rare. More often than not, fictionalised accounts simply offer a rehashing of established facts. Yet Regeneration delivers a narrative steeped in a poignancy and power that separates it from its predecessors. This, I think, is largely a product of Barker’s use of perspective. In choosing to set the novel away from the front lines and provide an account of the attempted rehabilitation of traumatised soldiers, the novel is able to fully capture the reader. Barker offers an expert reconstruction of the war experience through the voice of her characters. Descriptions of their experiences provide for some of the most intense and insightful passages in the novel:

” ‘It’s not just that, though is it? Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. You looked back along and…Like mushrooms. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to to to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow…distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you…almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.’

Of particular power is the internal battle fought by Rivers in resolving the conflict between his duty as an army psychiatrist and his horror at the realities of the war. The novel’s title, Regeneration, refers in part to Rivers’s previous efforts at regenerating damaged nerves – employing a process described as delivering unimaginable pain, with a view to the cure. The methods employed in rehabilitating traumatised soldiers and preparing them for return to battle involve a similar compromise – a forced confrontation with the traumatic memories, allowing the trauma to be ultimately overcome. Yet as Rivers witnesses the consequences of his efforts, he is unable to escape the moral implications of his duty. It is the questions posed by Siegfried Sassoon’s Declaration, and the subsequent friendship between the two men, that truly forces Rivers’s hand.

Beyond the intensely evocative narrative, Regeneration also offers some stunning prose. Barker is a master of subtlety. Her descriptive style offers some of the starkest and most demanding imagery, while always retaining a sense of place.

“The sea was calm, almost inaudible, a toothless mouth mumbling pebbles in the darkness. Instead of walking along the path, Burns struck out across the shingle and Rivers followed, to where the tide had laid bare a thin strip of sand. The crunch and slither of shingle under their feet blotted out all other sounds. Rivers turned, and saw the bones of Burns’s face gleaming in the moonlight.”

Regeneration is a novel that should feature on all To Read lists. As we face the impending distanciation that accompanies all progress of time, it becomes even more vital that we make efforts to remember. I remain unconvinced that memory alone prevents repetition and generally believe (however depressing it may be) that history is doomed to repeat itself. Memory is, however, all we have to offer those who gave their lives fighting the wars that dominated the twentieth century. Regeneration, in its own way, gives a voice to the fallen and the increasingly forgotten. It reminds us that the travesty of the First World War cannot be captured in casualty statistics. Rather, the tragedy comes with the loss of lives – of men with very real loves, hopes, and fears. Perhaps if we make efforts to remember that, we may be better equipped to interrupt the cycle of violence and conflict that continues to plague our world.


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