Friday, March 24, 2006

Regeneration by Pat Barker

This was a powerful novel, a moving and thoughtful glimpse into the lives of British soldiers' experiences during World War I. The prose is so smoothly written that you can dip into it and be completely absorbed - even submerged - in it. I'm sitting here holding the book in my hand, looking at the cover, re-reading the blurb on the back, because I am not quite ready to let go of a story that such had a profound emotional impact on me.

(And imagine! This book was assigned for my English course. At least there was *one* book in this mostly disappointing reading list that I can confidently say represents fiction at its best.)

Regeneration is a war story, a statement about the cost of war. It is an examination of the attitudes of soldiers, women, and men who weren't fighting on the front. It explores the psychological reality of "shell-shock" and the state of the psychiatric profession during the early 20th century.

The book focuses on the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland after publishing an anti-war declaration in 1917. In the hospital, he is put under the care of Dr. Rivers, and meets another young poet, Wilfred Owen, as well as other patients who are suffering from a variety of psychological problems after their experiences in the trenches. The story is mostly told through the eyes of Dr. Rivers, who struggles to maintain a belief in the necessity of the war while every day working with those who have been most traumatically affected by it.

Barker treats the war experiences of her characters frankly and doesn't pull any punches. The horrific memories of the men in the hospital are hard to forget, and yet they aren't sensationalized in any way. I know that in reading this book I'm getting a tiny glimpse of the death and suffering that were part of life in the trenches. What being a soldier or officer in World War I was truly like - and whether it really needed to be that bad - is something that Barker has sensibly left it to her readers to ponder after they turn the last page of this remarkable novel.

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