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Regeneration – Pat Barker

July 6, 2011

I came upon Regeneration accidentally – or, at least, that is how it descended from my book shelf and into my hands, was spread onto my lap and its infectious words started to swoon me. “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Well this is going to be interesting…

When I started reading Regeneration, I thought it was a not-all-entirely different book. You see, I thought it was Pat Barker’s Booker-Prize winning novel Ghost Road. I am rather grateful that it wasn’t, because I now have the opportunity to read two novels before I get to the third, Ghost Road, and will have a chance to understand her vision of the war all the more for it.

Regeneration is the first novel in the Regeneration Trilogy. It portrays the transformation of a man, or two (or more), in a mental health facility for those soldiers sent home from France in the First World War because of their mental afflictions. Shell Shock is not a generally accepted concept, so many of these men are not highly regarded by the society to which they are returning. Indeed, most have a sense of guilt for coming back mentally scarred rather than physically scarred. Moreover, most have a deep sense that they are missing out on the biggest clubhouse event of the century because of their inability to fight, or to ride horses, or to throw anymore grenades, or to run through no-man’s land once more. Many do anything they can to return just so that they don’t have to face their families or friends or communities as the weakling who died mentally but not physically.

The protagonist, Siegfried Sassoon, is a unique character in the mental health facility. You open the book convinced that there is nothing wrong with him mentally, and come to the conclusion (by the end) that there must be something wrong with him. He is a decorated soldier, a published poet who is relatively celebrated – and he refuses to fight. He knows there is nothing wrong with him – and he can’t be convinced that there is. Which is the purpose of the antagonist William Rivers – a psychiatrist at this relatively isolated mental healthy facility: restore Sassoon to ‘sanity’, which means convincing him that he is wrong and them convincing him to become right, and then send him back to the trenches.

Rivers becomes the protagonist in this novel, unexpectedly. And everybody else in the hospital becomes his antagonist – so the transformations of heart that he is expected to push onto Sassoon and the other patients start to affect him. Perhaps this sounds cliche in this context. But the way that Barker does this, with subtlety and perfect characterization, is phenomenal.

Of course, and much to my ignorant surprise, Barker is well-known in the UK for her writing. I felt that, years ago when I selected her novel from the discount bin because I liked the First World War, I was discovering a new novelist. Not at all. Her bibliography is extensive, as is her list of awards and her list of literary talents. Many of which are displayed in this novel.

Being a novel about mental health in the wake of a war there are flashbacks that Williams has to pull from his patients. And Barker handles these with the highest degree of expertise. They are short – no longer than a paragraph – they are sparked – by the shape of the beach, or the storm, or by a smell that doesn’t really exist but is imagined – they are graphic. And they are so well imaged with the text that you see them in the flashbacks to photos and movies, and you are affected.

The amazing and unexpected side of this novel is that it about more than the war – meaning the characters’ interactions and stories and much more developed than one would expect. Women who don’t want their husbands to come back but would prefer the war pension – or men who love other men but can only do so in the trenches because the war halted any developments in society’s acceptance – or families that are angry at their mentally dishevelled sons – or women in need of sex and men trapped without sex. These characters are people to Barker (and this is the central part of her novel) – they become people to the reader.

Yesterday I posted my list of favourite reads from this year. This novel was included. I’ve now collected the second novel in the trilogy from my local library, and upon its completion will procure the third. Barker’s accomplishment is to our benefit as a reader, and as a society – she helps us understand the war not in its immediate consequences but in the forces it places on its victims. Newton’s first Law of Motion: Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.Read this novel, and presumably the second and third novel, and see how impossibly strong the force of war is on the minds of young men and the challenge it places on those tasked with correcting it.

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