Author: Pat Barker
Finished on: 1 November 2016
Where did I get this book: Blackwell’s on Mappin Street in Sheffield, in about 2000.
I bought this book as part of my English Literature degree course. I may have given it a cursory skim at the time, but I certainly didn’t read it properly.
I have written before about how differently I would treat the experience of studying such a beloved subject were I to do it now. Despite going to university relatively late (I was 21 when I started my undergraduate degree) I’m not sure it was late enough for me to appreciate the embarrassment of riches I was exposed to (academically at least).
But I had a good time, and all the books I failed to value at the time (as well as the ones I very much did) are still sitting on my shelves 16 years later. So, part of the endeavour behind this blog is to give myself the push to finally read them now.
I am also trying to give the books I read for the Sheffield Telegraph book club, Fargate From The Madding Crowd, more of a topical hook. And as the next pages are out on 10 November, the day before Armistice Day, this seemed like a good time to dust down (literally, probably about a centimetre had accumulated in the six years since we last moved house) this classic.
I have read one review of Regeneration which describes it as an anti-war novel, but I’m not sure that’s true at all. Barker is just as vivid on the good intentions and the spectacular bravery, as she is on the slaughter on a vast scale. The book successfully portrays the complexity, and the validity, of views on both sides of the debate.
Barker mixes historical fact and creative reimagining to tell the story of war hero and poet Seigfried Sassoon’s ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ in 1917. This declaration protests against the ‘political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed’ in the First World War.
The establishment’s way of dealing with Sassoon is to diagnose shell-shock, and send him to psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart Hospital for treatment. Once there, we sit alongside Rivers, and a number of his patients, as they relive many horrific moments from the war to delve into the reasons behind their psychological damage.
The phrase ‘unimaginable horrors’ can be accurately applied to life in the trenches in the First World War, as I’m sure it can many war situations. Our comparatively luxurious and safe life in 2016 Britain means these events feel so very far away, particularly now there is almost nobody living who remembers them first hand. But the importance of Regeneration, and books like it, is they go some way towards making the unimaginable imaginable. Fiction has the power to make us vicariously experience these events that happened generations ago.
The most impressive thing about this book is the way Barker brings real historical figures to life. Rivers, as well as the trio of war poets Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, all feature heavily. Lewis Carroll even pops up at one point in a flashback to Rivers’s childhood. It’s all a bit Strictly Come Shell-Shock, but Barker’s supremely confident handling of these real characters, and real events, has a calm authenticity that means it stops short of ever feeling shoehorned.
The dialogue that forms large sections of the book, particularly in the form of therapy sessions, rings remarkably true. This is a huge achievement when dealing with famous events such as Sassoon helping Owen to make changes to the classic Anthem For Doomed Youth. It is hard enough to make characters feel real when you have a blank canvas. But with all the responsibility of historical accuracy on her shoulders, Barker pulls off a masterclass in beautiful characterisation.
It has also been one of those amazing literary synchronicities to read Regeneration immediately following Tolstoy’s Resurrection. These are both books about striving to identify and do what is ‘right’; the repair and renewal of a man following a momentous event. As Rivers reflects on the events of the novel, this could be a direct response to Nekhlyudov.
He remembered telling Head how he had tried to change his life when he came back from Melanesia for the second time and how that attempt had failed. He’d gone on being reticent, introverted, reclusive. Of course, it had been a very introverted, self-conscious attempt, and perhaps that’s why it hadn’t worked. Here in this building, where he had no time to be introverted or self-conscious, where he had hardly a moment to himself at all, the changes had taken place without his knowledge.
I tend to love a book full of drama, but what impresses me about Regeneration is the calm, almost soothing style of Barker’s writing. The horror and drama of the events speak for themselves; they need no amplification through a florid style.
At only 250 pages long, the book is packed with action (I haven’t even mentioned the exploration of several of the men’s sexuality, or the vivid depictions of the women working in Edinburgh’s munitions factories) but the pace feels leisurely. It’s only when you look up from the pages that you realise you’ve absorbed so much.
We will remember them. And through books like this, we will understand them a little bit better too. This is a book that doesn’t deserve to be covered in dust.