Book #71: Regeneration

The first book of this set was Regeneration by Pat Barker. Regeneration is the first book in a series of novels dealing with the psychological effects of World War I.

It’s not your typical war story book. The brilliant young doctor W.H.R. Rivers is a psychiatrist at Craigslockhart War Hospital in England. There, he deals with many men suffering from shell shock and other mental injuries they got in the war. Prominent among them is Siegfried Sassoon, a real-life character, who does not have shell shock, but is strongly against the war, though he does not want to be “sacrificed” to the pacifist cause.

Other characters suffer from mutism, shell shock, amnesia, and other various forms of breakdown due to their participation in the war. In treating all of them, especially Sassoon, Rivers’ opinions about the war and whether or not it is justified are challenged.

Regeneration is a different war book, because it focuses on the home front. Instead of putting his characters in the trenches and showing off the horror of war, Barker has them fighting a different war inside their heads – a war caused by the war they were sent to fight.

Rivers, then, who hasn’t been to the front lines, arrives at the hospital only knowing what the newspapers and reports say of the war. He’s heard the war glorified and idealized and seen men return heroes, until he sees the men who have faced the horrors of war and not emerged mentally and emotionally unscathed.

From the man who can no longer eat because an explosion through him headfirst into the body of a corpse, where he got a mouthful of flesh, to the bipolar man who suffers from selective mutism, Rivers can no longer hide from the reality that the war is madness. Like Sassoon, he begins to wonder what, exactly, the war is being fought for and if it is really worth it.

The most interesting issue in Regeneration for me was the moral issue Sassoon faces. He doesn’t believe in the war. He’s not a pacifist and isn’t against violence – he’s just not sure that this particular war or this particular violence is worth it. He doesn’t think there’s a point to the war. However, though he doesn’t believe in the war, he also still feels a duty to take care of his men who are still in France. If he goes back, then, he will be a sane person knowingly returning to a completely insane war, which he doesn’t agree with.

The internal conflicts of all the characters in Regeneration are interesting, real, and often painful. Barker’s work reads a lot like a Catch-22 sort of novel, in that there is a war and it is insane, and it seems like nearly everyone fighting the war is also insane. It’s unique in that in this case, the actual fighting never appears in the book. Instead, there is a separate war – sanity against insanity – that comes to the forefront.

Rating:  ****
Up Next: The Driver’s Seat

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