Reading The Plantagenets got me thinking about war and its impact on people and culture, which led me to reread Pat Barker’s magnificent WWI novel Regeneration. Barker’s book is a timely exploration of the effect of war on both society and on the individuals who must participate. The novel is a fictional account of poet and Royal Army officer Siegfried Sassoon’s commitment to the Craiglockhart Hospital following his declaration against the war. Rather than court-martialing Sassoon, the British Army sends him to the care of Dr. W. H. Rivers, who is known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers.
Barker deftly blends these historical characters with her fictional ones. Rivers gradually comes to question his role in curing these men of their insanity only to send them back to their likely deaths. Sassoon is clearly not insane, and his clearness of purpose increases Rivers’s conflict. Rivers was a pioneer in treating shell-shock, and his humane treatment is chillingly contrasted with the electric shock therapy used by another psychiatrist whom Rivers visits near the end of the novel. While Rivers and Sassoon provide the frame for the novel, the story of working class officer Billy Prior (a creation of Barker’s) fills in much of the detail of the war. Barker goes on to explore the conflicts in Prior’s life in her two sequels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
Barker’s prose is lyrical, even when writing about the horror of trench warfare, and the question of where sanity lies in wartime is still a pressing one.
Check the WRL catalog for Regeneration