Book Review - Regeneration

Posted on on 31 December 2015
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Author: Pat Barker
Publication Date: 13 January 2016

Regeneration was first published in 1991.

Publisher's description:

'Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers's job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients' minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front.

Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.'

Centenary News Review:

Review by: Michael Reynolds

PTSD – a modern acronym for the type of affliction that is frequently used in relation to our armed forces returning from conflict. Throughout the twentieth century we did not recognize the psychological damage suffered by men at the front. Without a doubt this book serves as a reminder of the horror our soldiers faced during the First World War.

Pat Barker reminds her audience that the First World War was certainly one embedded in the unknown – the unknown of industrialized warfare as well as the unknown aspects of the human mind, be it trauma, sexuality or lack of faith in our leaders. As readers we entirely forget that she was not a first hand witness to the brutality of the story; her vivid description of the patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital, which the story is centred on, are harrowing and in many cases based on truth.

We are following the story of Siegfried Sassoon when our story begins, but truly we are following the history of the men recovering in Craiglockhart War Hospital under the care of Dr. Rivers. The fact that Barker uses real people like Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and WHR Rivers is harrowing and deeply disturbing – if anything it further brings the message of the novel home.

Indeed, the story is full of terrible events and the worst afflictions from the frontlines of the war. Our beloved protagonist Sassoon is a unique character in Regeneration as instead of suffering with severe mental afflictions he disagrees with the war, which causes his incarceration at Craiglockhart. It reminds us that the young men fighting this war were not given much choice. Whether it was being labeled a coward at home, or being conscripted into the military it involved a whole generation of men whether they disagreed with the war on a political scale or not.

The feeling of dread that this invokes is something that we can hardly relate to as a generation that is given freedom on all fronts, a particular right that was fought for across the entire century. This makes the stance of this novel all the more important as it highlights the complete lack of choice that young men in particular had during this period. This extends past acts of war but also sexuality. Barker encapsulates the idea of being contained wonderfully via her vivid description of psychological damage, the characters trapped within their own personal hell-scapes as well as trapped within their traditional roles as males – protectors, strong, without fear, and heterosexual. Obviously we gain an insight that homosexuality was clearly frowned upon as unnatural and therefore hidden from sight by a number of the characters, the parallel that this has with their role as victims of psychological disorders, hidden away from the world, creates a difficult read indeed.

If it were not for Barker’s strategically placed conversations between Rivers and his patients, the novel itself would be an uphill struggle. The sheer density of the patients’ issues is difficult to read about, especially when the root causes are explored. The exposition that is provided via these conversations make for an interesting read. The complex issues that each man is trying to accept being broken down into chunks for the reader leads us to believe that Barker not only has an astute awareness of how such complexities occur but also their real world consequences, as well how they affected the individuals. If we did not know any better, we would assume that Barker was a fly on the wall with her insights into the relationships between doctor and patient, especially between Dr Rivers and William Prior.

The sheer brutality of the war and its effects on the officers at Craiglockhart is broken up by a romantic engagement between William Prior and Sarah Lumb; two completely fictional characters who are strategically placed together so as to not remove from the true value of the real characters in the novel. However, William is one of the characters that Dr Rivers has a great deal of conversation with, a great deal of conversation that allow us the vital insights to Rivers himself. Although this may seem to remove the importance of Rivers’ responses to Prior during these conversations, it does also provide the important insights to how a man such as Rivers could have thought. Instead of verbatim conversations we are offered a point of view that although not factually accurate is still vital: the point of view from a man who is trying to help the suffering but meant to remain politically neutral.  

Barker also discusses the idea of the woman and war predominantly through the character Sarah Lumb and her place of work as well as the discussions that she has with other minor characters working in the munitions factories. Although minor characters, the munitions workers' role is far larger, the introduction of the first waves of feminism is represented through their work. Topics such as abortion and sex are highly sensitive subjects that cause a fracturing of opinion amongst the female characters. Sarah’s mother is the archetypal matriarch and thinks that working in a munitions factory is for common and un-proper women. This of course is a representation of women during this period: repressed. Instead of earning a good wage and helping the war effort she is told to work in a tea shop by her mother to retain some sort of dignity. This, paired with her sexual relationship with William, reinstates the importance of their role. Although all of this is familiar to us in the twenty-first century, the uncanny spin that Barker gives it by reminding us in such a visceral manner that these things were not normal allows for an odd hindsight: we do not face these problems because some did.  

Women’s rights and the concept of a woman’s role in the world is a rightly difficult concept to read about in this novel, particularly the conversation between factory workers and the attempted abortion of a co-worker. It is a particularly important conversation; the modern individual is once again reminded how dire the situation was for a woman during this period of time and the shadow of this former past still being cast over a hundred years later.

Moreover it highlights the impact that wartime has on the women on the home front, not only the men at the front. Whilst the experiences differ hugely, they are both damaging and cause a plethora of problems. The main issues Barker presents us with are thus: for a man war allows a chance to prove himself as a man or simply a coward. For a woman the gap between them and their male counterparts is brought closer but ever present, in this case the shift supervisor of the munitions factory reminding us that a man is still in charge. Furthermore the women have to deal with the fallout of the war whilst fighting to gain their own rights. Fair treatment and equal footing in society was the very least owed but the very real issue of women all over the country gaining pseudo-rights that would then be stripped when the war came to a close was very realistic.

Without a doubt Barker uses our own comfort and modern sensibilities against us to create an impact so powerful that it will shake the reader to their core, reminding us how the issues of 1914 still plague modern society. Whether it be from a failing of humanity in its continuation of war, the blind faith we have in politics, the treatment of mental health, or the idea of gender and the rights of women, the novel strips humans to their base prejudices and tries to restructure a nonsensical war as something that we should have learned from instead of a conflict that we should simply forget or glorify. 

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