Review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’ job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front; Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

It’s always a joy to discover an author about whom you think ‘I must get more of her books’. Regeneration isn’t the sort of book I normally read, so when I picked up a copy all my hopes were pinned on it being as good as the quotes on the back suggested. It was.

Ms Barker has an enjoyable style, tells a cracking story and treads the right side of the line of credibility with the use of real characters among her original ones. Sassoon, Owen and Graves are believably portrayed, and the names they drop into conversation seem natural rather than being forced as they often are in ‘faction’. I had expected to be most involved with the War poets, but found myself instead intrigued by Dr Rivers, a distinguished neurologist and anthropologist, who wrote about Sassoon as ‘Patient B’ in his book ‘Conflict and Dream’. Rivers’ treatment of and compassion for his patients is in sharp contrast to some of his colleagues, and a number of the ‘cures’ inflicted on the shell-shocked veterans make uncomfortable reading. If you retain any illusions about the ‘glories’ of WWI, this book will help you lose them.

Regeneration may not seem an obvious candidate for a review at this site, but the presence of Sassoon – an admitted homosexual – and Owen and Rivers – probably homosexually inclined – justify it. Not that anything more explicit occurs than slightly coded references to their past activities and present attractions. The sexual heart of the book lies in the story of Billy Prior, who carries more than one chip on his shoulder, has some sort of strange psychological condition of which we’re only given glimpses and whose war experiences continue through all three books in this trilogy.

If you’re looking for either raw or romantic m/m passion you won’t find it here, but if you’re interested in the relationships between people and like to try to fill in the gaps (rather than being told exactly what people were feeling at any given time) this will appeal. The thing I’ve taken away from the book is exactly this sensation of trying to fill in the jigsaw. Sassoon seemed to want Rivers to be a father figure, but what role did Prior have in mind for his psychiatrist? Was Owen attracted to Sassoon or was it merely hero worship? And, most intriguingly, how much attraction did Rivers feel for his patients?

Regeneration is the first in the trilogy which includes The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road

Amazon UK.   Amazon USA (Kindle)

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for this review, Charlie. I’ve downloaded a sample to my Kindle. You know I am interested in WWI. This looks interesting.


    • It is interesting, as are the other books in the series. I’m really lucky in that our local Oxfam second hand book store stocks loads of good books – got The Ghost Road there, and some of the ones where old soldiers talk about WWI.Fascinating stuff.


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