Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 1991.

The first book in Pat Barker's World War I trilogy (the others are 'The Eye in the Door'' and ''The Ghost Road'') is heavy with understatement and dialog. One of the novel's strengths is that it stands at a certain remove from the trenches of the Western Front; we learn about the horrendous living conditions and traumatic events that scar the soldiers from the perspective of Edinburgh and London, where they try to recuperate. The main character, Rivers, an anthropologist serving as a counselor to "shell-shocked" victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, is too old to fight, yet we feel he's in the trenches with his men as he probes the causes of their debilitating psychological conditions and tries to lead them out of the dark. In a vivid episode, he visits one of the men in his home country by the sea, and the trauma of a storm unlocks the soldier's inner turmoil. Lots of class consciousness and anti-war sentiment (one character is Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who opposed the war even as he sought his own return to combat) permeate the book, but the novel manages to get beneath the cant and into the heart-breaking reality of these not-particularly heroic men. I'm looking forward to the next two books.

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