Reading Through the Bookcase: Pat Barker

Regeneration Trilogy

I’m a bit late in updating, but believe me, I’ve been reading! I switched for a while away from my science fiction/fantasy shelves to go for some historical fiction. Next up on the fiction shelf was British author Pat Barker and her Regeneration Trilogy.

Remember that massive power blackout on the eastern side of North America for a day or two in the second week of August in 2003? My clearest memory of it is lying on my futon on the floor and reading this entire trilogy from start to finish, sweltering. Oddly, though, I didn’t remember a single detail from the books when I picked them up again this time. All I knew was that the story took place during World War I, and with this summer being the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and all, I was very reluctant to read still more about it.

Silly me. Once I started this trilogy, I could not put it down. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed a set of books so very much, and I can see why, back on that hot summer day in 2003, I didn’t do a thing except read and read and read.

For one thing, except for some of the final scenes of the third book, none of the story actually takes place in the trenches or on the battlefield at all. Most of the first book, Regeneration, is set in the mental institution of Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, Scotland, where psychiatrist William Rivers treats soldiers who have come out of the war with psychological problems, trying to get them fit to send back to the trenches. I loved Barker’s portrayal of this man and his private thoughts and his relationships with his patients. She portrayed him as a very kind man who had his own faults and struggles–not to mention his own internal conflicts about morality and duty with respect to the war–but who thought and felt deeply about the welfare of his patients and what might be behind their mental difficulties. I’ve been so inspired that I want to find out much more about this man and what he was like in real life.

I love that a great many important characters in this trilogy were real people. I get intrigued by them and usually want to follow up and either read their own work or read what else is written and known about them. Rivers is the main character of the first book, but a very large role is also played by one of his patients, real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is protesting the war and yet feels guilty for leaving his men behind in the field. And we meet another real-life poet, Wilfred Owen, who even I had heard of as a young war poet who died in battle. We even have a brief encounter or two with Robert Graves, Sassoon’s friend. (Yes–that Robert Graves, of I, Claudius and The White Goddess fame.)

The other main character was Billy Prior, who was not a real historical person but who was created, according to Barker, as a contrast to Sassoon and Owen. Dr. Rivers is still very present in books two and three, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, but not as much as in book one. We follow Billy Prior’s own struggles in book two with what we now recognize as PTSD as he finally overcomes a lot of his own difficulties and, in book three, heads at last back to the battlefield. It’s no surprise, of course, that those war camp/battlefield scenes are the least interesting parts of the trilogy, to me. Just not my thing. See: my reluctance to pick up the trilogy, above.

But the psychology of it all! Now, that’s my cup of tea. It was fascinating to see Rivers beginning to explore ideas and the germs of theories that we now see in full bloom, a century later. It was intriguing to see where the germs of those ideas might have come from, in the depths of a conflict that roiled up every possible type of psychological process.

I might have been reluctant to pick up this trilogy and read it again, but I am so glad that the reluctance vanished and I did so! I remembered hearing an interview with Ms. Barker not long before the 2003 blackout, where she discussed these books. That had been why I had bought them, in fact. I may have forgotten all the details after that first reading, but somehow I don’t think I’m going to forget anything from this trilogy this time around.

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