Tuesday, 27 April 2010
Regeneration by Pat Barker
I found out about this book from C.B.James’s blog after he reviewed the whole trilogy of which this book is the first of (many thanks C.B.James)
Although the front cover of both the American and British edition of the book indicates this is a book about WWI it takes a more different way of looking at that period. Set in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, the book mostly follows psychiatrist W.H. Rivers as he treats the soldiers who have been taken out of service for his treatment. These soldiers are not physically injured but mentally and the idea is that Rivers can ‘cure’ them enough so that they can be sent back to the front line to fight.
The author here has mixed fact with fiction; Dr Rivers really did exist as did several of the patients in the book including Owen and Sassoon. There is an author’s note at the back where she explains that the information on patient’s treatment in the book was obtained from papers which Rivers and others had written at the time. Mental illness caused by the experiences of war was not a subject which had previously been extensively studied and this is reflected in the different types of treatment given to patients depending on which doctor is treating them.
An example of this is where a patient has become so traumatised by his experiences he loses the ability to speak. Where Dr River's treats this condition using Freud and waits for the patient to speak in his own time, another doctor will treat the same condition with electric shocks in a technique which would be classed as torture today. However although this was not brought up in the book (maybe it will in the rest of the trilogy) these men were the lucky ones, many men at the front were executed for cowardice when they showed signs of shell shock.
The patients in the book have various issues such as shell shock, persistent vomiting etc One case which I found particularly fascinating; a doctor who could not stand the sight of blood as a result of all the amputations he has had to perform on the front. There is no medical jargon in the book instead it focuses on whether there is any hope for these men in the future, the guilt these men feel about being away from their friends on the front and what exactly is the point in preserving these men’s mental health only to send them back to an almost certain death?
This does not exactly sound like a fast based war book and indeed it is not, it is however an interesting and understated story. If I have one criticism it is that the author does expect the reader to know a little about the real life patients of Owen and Sassoon. These two were famous war poets that met in hospital; something which I was unaware of so did not really understand some parts in the beginning, but that really is a very minor quibble.
This book very much focuses on the aftermath of war and the doctors and the patients convey sadness and disillusionment which gives the book a poignant feel to it, it was refreshing to read about experiences away from the front. I am glad this is part one of a trilogy because the story felt as though there is more to tell.
Posted by Jess