Regeneration – by Pat Barker – independent book review – Historical Fiction (World War I)

Regeneration is the first volume of Pat Barker’s trilogy (#2= The Eye in the Door, #3 = The Ghost Road) on World War I, named by the British newspaper, The Observer, as one of the ten best historical novels of all time. And one of the top novels of all time by the New York Times Book Review.  Sorry, not to me. Awarded three stars on Goodreads. 3.5 is probably more accurate.

Unlike most of the historical novels I have read about World War I (and there have been MANY), this one is not focused on the absurdity of trench warfare, or the massive scale of death and injury, or even the political alliances which transformed the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand into a worldwide conflagration.

Instead, Regeneration takes place inside a war hospital’s mental ward, where soldiers suffering from battle fatigue (or the newly coined term of shell shock, what we would call PTSD) are being treated by doctors whose main goal is to get soldiers “cured” and back fighting at the front as soon as possible.

Dr. Rivers, the psychiatrist readers get to know best, is required to treat soldiers whose symptoms vary widely: recurring nightmares, psychosomatic paralysis, stuttering, inability to speak, or even to eat. Into this mix comes patient (and real person) Siegfried Sassoon, a noted British poet and decorated war hero who has suddenly and publicly refused to serve, because he now sees the war as senseless slaughter. Clearly, the military concludes, Sassoon MUST be deranged. Because certainly no sane person would raise such questions in the middle of a war.

British Poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

By setting the book in a mental ward, author Pat Barker does show us a side of war most of us seldom think about. At a time when knowledge about mental illness was scarce, we observe ineffective (and in some cases torturous) treatment methods, arbitrary time-frames established for rehabilitation, and the permanent psychological damage suffered by survivors who witnessed unspeakable horrors. The descriptions are not for the faint hearted. Even the physicians do not escape unscathed.

Pat Barker

So, the novel certainly does not lack for drama. And there were a few times I had to set the book aside to take a break. But, throughout the book, I kept feeling somewhat removed. I think part of the problem was because so much of the narrative is from a clinician’s perspective, someone trying to objectively assess each patient’s case. That alone is a layer removed. In addition, there are so MANY different soldier stories to follow, I did not find myself able to get deeply emotionally attached in any of them. As soon as I began to go there, Barker moved on.

I still find stories about World War I completely fascinating. But in terms of recommending historical novels that help you understand the war, I would pick 1914 by Jean Echenoz or All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. If you’re interested, here are my reviews of both:


All Quiet on the Western Front

More about British novelist Pat Barker.

You may be interested in my review of another novel by Barker:

The Silence of the Girls