Book note: Regeneration by Pat Barker

REGENERATION by Pat Barker (1991)

I picked up this novel by chance at a neighborhood free book exchange.  It is a fascinating story, mostly true.

It is about the real-life encounter during World War One between Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an Army psychologist, and Siegfried Sassoon, a poet and war hero turned war protester.

Sassoon had written a protest letter against continuation of the war.  He was not a pacifist.  He believed that the war had become a war of aggression and conquest, and that its original aims could be achieved through negotiation.

The letter was published in the London Times and read in the House of Commons.  Sassoon faced court-martial, but his friend Robert Graves, a fellow officer and fellow poet, arranged for his commitment to Craiglockhart war hospital to save him.

At the hospital, Sassoon met and mentored the war poet Wilfred Owen, another real-life patient of Rivers.  

Craiglockhart was for the treatment of shell shock (now known at PTSD).  Dr. Rivers before the war had been an expert on psychosomatic illness.  

His method of treatment, innovative at the time, began with convincing the patient that every man, no matter how brave, has a breaking point and the PTSD was not evidence of cowardice.  Then he helped the patient understand the cause of the trauma and so break its hold.

This was similar to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis except that Rivers believed the fundamental repressed human drive was not sex, but self-preservation.  He perceived that the basic loyalty of most soldiers was not to king and country, but to their comrades on the battlefield. 

Rivers treated officers.  In the novel, he met the real-life character, Dr. Lewis Yealland, who treated enlisted men.  His method of treating PTSD was very different.  It consisted of subjecting the patient to a worse trauma than the trauma that caused the symptoms.  

Yealland put his patients into a locked room and subjected them to extremely powerful and painful electric shocks, which ceased only when, step by step, their symptoms went away.  He claimed to cure his patients with just one treatment and to have a 100 percent success rate.

Rivers was shaken by Yealland’s apparent effectiveness, but he couldn’t bring himself to torture his patients.

The main fictional characters are Billy Prior, an officer of working-class origins, and Sarah Lamb, a factory girl with whom he has a love affair.  Prior suffered from “mutism,” the inability to speak, which was commonly found among enlisted men but almost never among officers.

The moral problem for Rivers was that his mission as a healer was to restore men to mental health so they could return to the battlefield and get themselves killed.  The average life expectancy of a British officer on the front lines in France was three months.

Sassoon and Graves hated the war, but they deeply resented civilians, including pacifists.  All things considered, they preferred being at the front with their doomed comrades to being safe at home.

On the last page, Rivers signs a paper saying Sassoon is fit for duty.  He is convinced that Sassoon is going to France with the intention of being killed, the only way he can resolve his dilemma.  This in fact didn’t happen, but it could have.

∞∞∞

Regeneration is the first of a three-part series.  The other two are The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.  The latter won the 1995 Booker Prize, Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

Barker is one of those writers who gives the impression of knowing everything there is to know about her characters and their world.  She is a fine descriptive writer and that, combined with her thorough research, makes me feel I know what it was like to live in England in 1917 and serve on the Western front – that is, as much as possible to someone far away in space and time, sitting in an armchair with a cup of coffee at his elbow. 

.

The movie, which came out in 1997, is reasonably true to the spirit and events of the book, but it’s not a substitute for reading the book.

 

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