I first read this book about two years ago, around the time when the British Ministry of Defence was seeking pardons for 300 British soldiers who were shot for military offences, including cowardice and desertion, during World War I. This particular book was a recommendation from a friend who suggested it after I posted a review of Siegfried Sassoon’s collected poems. I am very, very hard to satisfy when it comes to historical fiction…which is why it makes me quite glad to say that I will suggest this book to anyone with even a smidgen of interest in a fictional perspective on actual historical events.
Regeneration by Pat Barker
In 1917, decorated war hero and published poet Siegfried Sassoon sent a letter to his commanding officer, denouncing the war. The letter caused a sensation at the time, as Sassoon’s words were reprinted in the press and even read out in Parliament. As a result of his protest — and to allow his superiors to avoid the high-profile court-martial that would have certainly happened otherwise — Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for shell-shock. Pat Barker’s story picks up there, for Regeneration focuses on Sassoon’s time at the hospital and his treatment by the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers. But while Sassoon’s story forms the framework of the novel, Regeneration explores several of the issues that burned the memory of the Great War into the minds of an entire generation: how men coped (or could not cope) with the horrific sights they had seen in the trenches, how the war changed lives and altered priorities, and how the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder as we know it today was only just beginning to be understood by those who suffered from it and those who treated it.
There are many kinds of sickness — physical, mental, and emotional — in Regeneration. Setting the story in what is essentially a mental hospital allows Barker to show several sides of the war that is not often considered, especially in the context of the time period. Early psychiatric treatments for shell-shock, as it was known then, were primitive at best and downright cruel at worst, and many of the therapies and treatments that are now considered standard practice for PTSD sufferers were considered radical and even nonsensical by the medical standards of the day. The theme of emasculation (by mental illness or through actual physical injury) haunts the minds of the male characters. Concerns over homosexuality and effeminate behaviour crop up constantly throughout the book, nearly always tied into the idea of the manly valour of warfare and the repression of one’s emotions during wartime. (Sassoon was known to be part of a literary circle that included Oscar Wilde’s close friend Robbie Ross, and the friendship formed at Craiglockhart between Sassoon and poet Wilfred Owen is thought by some scholars to have had an effect on the homoerotic elements that were to appear in Owen’s published work.) Barker does an excellent job of letting the characters speak for themselves, as they develop the most important themes almost of their own accord.
Regeneration is the first part of a three-part series, continued in The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road. Of the three, Regeneration is the book set most firmly in historical events; according to other reviews I have read, the other two books continue the story in the same context and time period but do not cleave so closely to factual occurrences. Regeneration leaves off as an Army medical board clears Sassoon to return to the front, but that ending by no means wraps up the entire story that Barker begins to tell. And even though I have not yet had a chance to look into the rest of the triology, the overarching story seemed well-told and interesting enough to make it worth seeing through until the end.