I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. – from A Soldier’s Declaration by S. Sassoon, July 1917 –
Regeneration is the first book in Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy. Siegfried Sasson was an historical figure, a noted poet and decorated war hero who penned the Soldier’s Declaration – a refusal to continue serving as a British officer based on the moral grounds that the war was a misguided effort contributing to the senseless slaughter of men. Spared a court martial, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland where the famous psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers was assigned the task of “curing” him from insanity in order to send him back to France and the front line.
The novel, however, is less about Sassoon and more about the psychological effects of war. Barker shows us the shell-shocked and mentally damaged patients through the eyes (mostly) of Dr. Rivers. Billy Prior arrives at the hospital unable to speak. A young soldier by the name of Burns is so traumatized by his experiences he is unable to eat without vomiting. The reader meets yet another soldier who is “paralyzed” even though his spinal cord is physically undamaged. In sensitively revealing the psychic injuries of the characters, Barker asks the essential question: Is war worth the toll it takes on those who sacrifice for it? Even Rivers, who is tasked with restoring men to duty, begins to question the morality of war.
His body felt like a stone. Rivers got hold of him and held him, coaxing, rocking. He looked up at the tower that loomed squat and menacing above them, and thought, Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing. – from Regeneration, page 180 –
Pat Barker’s strength is in revealing the emotions of her characters without being maudlin. Often she employs dialogue between doctor and patient to reveal the the horror of war and its impact.
‘You wait, you try to calm down anybody who’s obviously shitting himself or on the verge of throwing up. you hope you won’t do either of those things yourself. Then you start the count down: ten, nine, eight…so on. You blow the whistle. You climb the ladder. Then you double through a gap in the wire, lie flat, wait for everybody else to get out – those that are left, there’s already quite a heavy toll – and then you stand up. And you start walking. Not at the double. Normal walking speed. ‘ Prior started to smile. ‘In a straight line. Across open country. In broad daylight. Towards a line of machine guns.’ – from Regeneration, page 78 –
Regeneration is a war novel which is set not on the battlefield, but inside the minds of its characters – many of whom are historical figures. I found it to be a slow start – it is a drama that slowly reels the reader into the story. Regeneration is written with compassion and a subtle tension which reveals a sometimes barbaric and disturbing period in the history of psychiatry. Barker writes with honesty and has created a novel which pricks at the conscience.
Regeneration was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 1991.
Recommended for those readers interested in historical fiction, particularly during World War I. Those interested in psychology will also find this novel a fascinating character study.