I had never heard about Pat Barker until my book club recommended “Regeneration”, the first book of a trilogy, for our new reading list. At first I was skeptical. We had read two “war” books and I didn’t finish either of them. Yet, this book was different. It focused more on the horrors that soldier face while on the front as well as the psychological impacts as a result. I finished this book over two weeks ago, but it took me awhile to get my thoughts straight.
It starts with Siegfried Sassoon who writes a memo refusing to continue serving as an officer in World War I because he doesn’t believe in the cause behind it. Diagnosed as “shell shocked” He is sent to Craiglockart War Hospital where he becomes the patient of Dr. William Rivers. Rivers doesn’t think that there is anything mentally wrong with Sassoon, but fears that he is anti-war and will make trouble. However, Rivers agrees to treat Sassoon and is determined to send him back to service.
While at the hospital, we are introduced to Rivers’ other patients, all soldiers who suffer from PTSD as a result of war trauma. David Burns is a patient who is unable to eat after a bomb throws him headlong into the gut of a rotting soldier; Billy Prior suffers from mutism whenever he is forced to remember what happened in the war as well as asthma, which prevents him from returning; and Anderson, a prior surgeon, has a mental breakdown and can’t stand the sight of blood.
Through these characters, we see how trauma is different in each individual and the journey each takes to heal. Through Rivers’ treatment, each learns to deal with their trauma in different ways. At the same time, Rivers begins to see his patients in a new way and begins to think that Sassoon may have had a point about the war. He begins to question whether the sole purpose of his treatment is to send soldiers back and for what reason. This is highlighted when Rivers goes to study another doctor who uses electroshock treatment to cure a different case of mutism. Rivers, who suffers from a stutter, is horrified.
Through the book, Barker highlights other themes including sexuality, masculinity, identity and social structure. While Billy is dating a woman in town, there are subtle hints that Billy may be gay or bisexual, though it is never clearly resolved. Also, when Prior is given home service due to his asthma, he thinks he will be seen as a coward. Even Sassoon decides to return to the war because of his guilt of leaving the other men behind.
Barker has a way of making you connect with each of the characters so that you feel that you know each of them personally. While I have never been to war and could not possibly understand what soldiers go through, I felt like I was there with each them. There is so much packed into this book that I was startled when I got to the end and sad that I had to leave them. I originally had no plans to read the other two books in this trilogy, but now I feel invested and want to see how these characters make out. I can’t wait to talk about this book next week in book club.