Pat Barker – ‘Regeneration’ review

A potent recollection of wartime horrors, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ encapsulates brilliantly the traumas of war. Written in 1991, ‘Regeneration’ is the first book in a trilogy of war-based novels, but can easily be read as a stand alone piece.

During the first world war, thousands of soldiers tragically suffered from shell-shock, amongst other mental illnesses, and were required to be discharged from duty. This novel takes place in Craiglockhart war hospital, Scotland, in 1917, where we’re made privee to a range of sufferings that real soldiers experienced as a result of their time on the front. It’s a melange of fiction and non-fiction, though the majority of this tale is what really happened, and incorporates the lives of the recognised war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, under the care of Dr. W H R Rivers, a real-life wartime psychiatrist. The troubles that this profession brings are laid out before us in this 250 page masterclass, and it’s guaranteed to move you. 

Personally, I would say that it’s the themes of mental illness, male relations and wartime expectations that make it such an engrossing account. The array of characters and situations that Pat Barker explores, is what keeps the novel both vivacious and entertaining. We see cases of nightmares, extreme vomiting, stammering, muteness and hallucinations amongst others, and it’s sincerely sad and sickening to discover what some of these men went through. Again, the troubles of masculinity are superbly depicted by Barker, in the way that homosexuality was frowned upon, father-son relationships were tense, and the expectation of men to be brave and give themselves up for their country only corrupted their sanity, making them ashamed of failing this, as they saw themselves as weak, in comparison to what the ‘ideal man’ was at the time. With this, ‘Regeneration’ can be said to be an emotional record of the time, but I think that’s what makes it distinct amongst a vast range of war-based products that the UK produces. The only real negative of this book is that nothing drastic ever happens, and that makes it somewhat less exciting than some other books, and there are moments that could be seen as tedious. On the other hand, it’s not supposed to be exciting. This is an insight into the lives of men in the first world war, and it’s their individual stories that put together such an intense and fine read.

Despite the fact that there is an abundance of books, television shows, films, plays etc that are based on the first world war, I would recommend ‘Regeneration’, as it stands out from the field of mediocracy, exploring a side to the war that is much less talked about – the pointlessness of it. If you’re someone who has a real passion for the war, then that’s a bonus, but even if you’re not that interested in the war, this is still a fascinating read, because the extreme psychological situations and struggles of these young men are gripping, moving and enthralling regardless.


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