Saturday, 13 June 2020

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Regeneration by Pat Barker
First published in the UK by Viking in 1991.

R for my 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge and my 1990s read for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge

How I got this book:
Bought the paperback at a charity shop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, and 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. Pat Barker's Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.

I first read Regeneration almost exactly a decade ago, in July 2010 (thank you Goodreads!), and remember at the time thinking it was such an amazing novel. I never got around to reading the third book in the Regeneration trilogy though so, when I recently saw a paperback edition of all three books in a charity shop, I snapped it up. Ten years and a second reading hasn't altered that opinion. If anything, I think I was even more impressed by Barker's writing this time around. The emotional depth she imparts to her characters is a masterclass, especially when they also convincingly inhabit the repressed environment of 1910s Britain.

I could empathise with Dr Rivers' predicament of being required to heal the men in his care as best he can, but all the time knowing that success on his part would often lead to those men right back into the hell that caused their mental breakdowns in the first place. Barker doesn't shy away from portraying the gruesome reality of First World War trench warfare and its aftermath on the soldiers' minds and bodies. Regeneration is unflinchingly honest and, as a result, frequently sickening to read, but I believe novels such as this one are important. In an era when Britain's war history is being irresponsibly glamorised for political reasons, it is vital not to lose sight of the potential disasters that could unfold.

I was particularly interested in this reading in Rivers' ideas about the root causes of shellshock, as it was called then, being not necessarily due to a single traumatic event, but rather the result of a build-up of stresses over time with one final snap. Also the concept that a sense of helplessness could be more of a contributing factor for men who were unable to have any say in their fate, even though they could clearly see the folly of the path their leaders were ordering them to take. I don't recall picking up so much on these psychological discussions during my previous reading, but loved following them this time around.

I don't think it would be unfair to say that Regeneration is my favourite First World War novel and I think it is comparable in its power to other war novels such as How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Shadow King by Maaza Mengista and In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas.

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