Regeneration by Pat Barker

patbarkerRegeneration, Pat Barker 1991, Penguin 2008

Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where 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…

Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.

This book could so easily have been awful. By writing fictional accounts of Robert graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen Pat Barker has taken on an extremely challenging subject and yet it works. Fictionalising people from WW1 would be difficult enough but if those people are writers or poets it becomes a challenge only a very confident and talented writer would dare take on. I reviewed Goodbye to All That a while ago and am a fan of Owen and Sassoon so I admit I went into this with critical attitude.

I didn’t fully realise before reading this book the difference of class between Sassoon and Owen and what that would have meant. I technically knew that they were from different backgrounds but the impact this had on their daily lives and how people saw them didn’t really occur to me. Barker illustrates these issues brilliantly and them goes one step further by creating a Billy Prior, a working class patient. By using Prior she explores a whole facet of the war that is often overlooked.

A horse’s bit. Not an electrode, not a teaspoon. A bit. An instrument of control. Obviously he and Yealland were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had—however unconsciously—rejected. He found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work.

The slow dawning horror that overcomes Rivers as he reassesses his role as a doctor and the point of the Great War itself is buried in the heart of the book and his dreams sequences were awful and thought provoking to read. The de-romanticisation of mental illness and heroism in the trenches mirrors the poems by Owen and Sassoon and as soon as I finished this book I went back to read them in a fresh light.

I liked this book and I went into it with  higher expectations and readier to be negative than I normally would have because of my love for poetry from the Great War.

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