Pat Barker’s Regeneration is one of those must-read works for anyone who is interested in World War One. Critics loved it, it was nominated for the Booker Prize, and was adapted into a film starring James Wilby, Jonathan Pryce, and Jonny Lee Miller. The novel tells the story of the Craiglockhart War Hospital, where army officers were treated for both physical injuries and severe PTSD. Characters from all walks of life struggle with the effects of the war, including the fictional counterparts of two Narratologist regulars, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. What a premise, right? And yet, I have been postponing this review for days because I struggled to come up with anything to say about Regeneration other than: “‘s alright.”
In part, the problem lies with me: Pat Barker has done her research – and so have I. I have read the same poems, the same letters, the same historical documents she has while putting together her novel, and as if that wasn’t enough, I have also already seen the movie adaptation. As a result, Regeneration only sporadically managed to truly grip me, despite its fascinating premise. I had heard most of these stories before – and from firsthand sources, at that. When you’ve done your homework on this setting and the people, like I have, Barker’s novel loses some of its power. Perhaps this makes me less suitable to properly review this book and in many ways, I feel like I would have been able to appreciate it much more if I had read it a year or two ago, before the centenary events inspired me to start reading more WWI literature.
This does not mean that Barker’s work has no merit or originality. She manages to capture the character of Sassoon very well and his interactions with Wilfred Owen are a pleasure to read (sadly only a tiny part of the larger narrative). For me, the absolute highlight of the novel is one of their very first conversations, when Owen says
Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. You looked back along and… Like mushrooms. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to to to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow… distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you… almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.
That, right there, is literary magic. It’s paragraphs like this that make me wonder if I should love this novel more, be more impressed somehow. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to these stories of trauma and horror, became so familiar with them that my experience of them has become less immediate. At this point, it has become very difficult to be sure.
I do appreciate how Barker decided to tell the story of what happens off the battlefield, back home. The book is all about how severely war can affect people, even those who have never seen actual battle. Most of the characters are broken in one way or another and they all struggle to make sense of their experiences. Even the psychiatrist in charge of curing these men is plagued by nightmares and a nervous stammer. They have been exposted to something so incomprehensible that it has changed them at their very core, and now they have to find a new way to function, to live.
There is so much I appreciate about this novel, and yet I want to love it a lot more than I actually do. Whether it is the sparse writing style, my familiarity with the period, the fact that I had seen the movie before I read the book, or all of the above, I still can’t say much more than “‘s alright.”
My advice: read it and draw your own conclusions. There’s something there.