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Pat Barker: Regeneration

The first in Barker’s First World War trilogy focuses primarily on Siegfried Sassoon, particularly his stay at the Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh during World War I. Sassoon had served in the War with bravery and had been decorated but became highly critical of the conduct of the war, to the extent of writing a declaration against the war, which was read out in Parliament. He risked court-martial but his friend, Robert Graves, managed to get him a hearing before a medical board, where he was declared to be suffering from shell shock and went to Craiglockhart for treatment. Much of the novel is about Sassoon’s relationship with the sympathetic neurologist W H R Rivers who is not only his doctor but becomes a friend. While Barker does dally with Sassoon’s motives for his declaration, particularly in his discussions with both Rivers and Graves as well as references to Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, who influenced his decision, her main focus is on the relationship between Sassoon and Rivers and, to a lesser extent, Rivers’ treatment of other men suffering from shell shock.

As well as Sassoon, we follow the treatment of a few other men, such as the one who was blasted into the air and landed on the decaying corpse of a German, getting both a smell and taste of the German’s stomach, with the result that he can no longer eat without vomiting as it reminds him of the German, or the man who cannot (or will not) talk but who wants to go back to the trenches, despite his severe asthma and, while recovering, starts a love affair with a woman working in a local munitions factory. Rivers’ treatment, sympathetic, though clearly with the intention of curing the men so that they are at least fit for some service, is contrasted with that of a colleague who is almost brutal (though equally effective), though it is clear that Barker prefers the Rivers approach.

As well as Graves, Sassoon and Rivers, other famous people make an appearance. In particularly, we meet Wilfred Owen, who will be killed in France just a week before the end of the War and who idolises Sassoon who helps him with his poetry. Rivers reminisces about his early days and how he met Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). But Barker’s interest is in Sassoon and Rivers and, while her sympathies are clearly more with the latter than the former, the story she tells is very well told and illuminates a part of World War I history which is not so well known.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Viking