As some of you may know, I am participating in Kailana's November Reading Challenge. I am making slow progress but have finally finished the first in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy called, not surprisingly, Regeneration.
Regeneration is a fascinating read. There is little in the way of traditional plot, all the action here is psychological, which is appropriate given the setting in Craiglockhart, a psychiatric institution for soldiers during WWI. The novel is part fiction and part history, with familiar figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen featuring. Rivers, the psychiatrist who becomes the central character, is also based on a historical figure.
The novel switches between various patients, all of whom have reacted in different ways to their horrific experiences of war, and all of whom force Rivers to consider his own attitude to the war. The horrific experiences of these men are beyond belief, even though we've heard these kind of stories many times before. The patient who is unable to eat after being hurled by a bomb blast and landing face first in the bloated and rotten entrails of a fellow soldier is a nightmarish example.
The concept of duty is central to the novel. Men declared unfit for service must reconcile their relief with their guilt and sense that they have not fulfilled their duty to their country and their fellow soldiers. Rivers has a duty to help his patients but in this complex situation what constitutes help? If Rivers 'cures' his patients, they are sent back to the front and to almost certain death.
The title also suggest another major thematic concern, that of regeneration. How will these men 'regenerate' after their devastating experiences, how does anyone recover from that? The title also hints at the word 'generation' and the conflict in the novel between the older generations with their patriotism and idealism and the experiences of the young men that they so easily commit to the conflict.
This is a complex and beautifully written novel. Pat Barker exercises great restraint with the material so that the truly horrifying elements are just that, and are not overwhelmed by sentiment. An added bonus is that the novel gives a great sense of the psychological climate in which Sassoon and Owen created their war poetry. While sometimes the sheer number of characters is overwhelming (I admit to having to flick back and forth a bit, particularly early on) the different strands of the novel eventually settle into place like pieces in a puzzle. It's disturbing material which seems increasingly relevant, despite our historical distance from WWI.
I look forward to reading the next two novels!