Updated: Mar 21, 2019
I am lost for words as to how good this novel is. To think that Barker, who was born in 1943 can write a novel which transports the reader into the horrors and the carnage of the trenches of World War 1 so effectively is amazing. Barker’s writing enabled me to see, and feel, the horrendous damage, physical and mental, that these soldiers had to endure. Her writing opens, and explores the ravaged and war damaged psyche. Before this war started, the term “Shell Shock” didn’t even exist. We now know of it as post-traumatic stress disorder and Barker shows us just how debilitating and soul destroying it can be. Most of these poor men suffering from this condition were thought to be cowards and sent back to the trenches. Barker explores the shame and paradoxically the relief that these men felt at this hospital. The shame felt because of the cultural spirit bred into generations of men that mental illness is a sign of weakness, relief, because they had respite, even if only temporary, from the trenches.
Siegfried Sassoon is a poet and a hero who has come to the belief that the Great War should be stopped and is being allowed to continue by the “powers at the top”. He writes a declaration in protest and is subsequently sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for evaluation. Dr Rivers has the job of deciding if Sassoon is mentally fit to return to the trenches. Rivers is the main protagonist of the novel and it is through the appointments with his patients that we see the mental damage and destruction that was inflicted on the soldiers in the trenches. However, the book is not just about them, it is also about Rivers and the effect that his patients, and the war, are having on him. The guilt he feels when he sends soldiers back to fight, the anguish he feels from seeing these men suffering day after day. At times it seems he is in as much mental turmoil as his patients. Essentially he is healing these men only to send them back into the very environment that damaged them in the first place.
I did not know until the author’s note at the end of the book that most of the main characters in this book are real. I had an inkling of an idea after reading Robert Graves name, but had never heard of the others. This is an amazing book, one of the best I have read for some time. It’s brilliantly written and I can’t wait to start the second book in the trilogy, 5 Stars.
Biography from goodreads.
Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics.
Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels. She's married and lives in Durham, England.
There is a fascinating interview with Pat Barker about World War 1 here -