Since seeing a theatre production of Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong a few years ago, I have been interested in war literature, particularly World War One literature. As a result of this, I opted to study a module on it at university this year. I bought Regeneration because it was on the original reading list, although it didn’t make the finalised version. I wasn’t annoyed, though, because I thought it would be something I would be interested in reading anyway.
Having not heard much about the novel before I began reading it, I was surprised that I knew the characters, Sassoon, Rivers, Owen and Graves, that Barker introduces. Of course, these men are canonical war writers, but I had also studied their work in depth since January, which made me think I would really be able to get to grips with the text.
However, I was disappointed. I am well-aware of the critical acclamation this book has received, and cannot deny Pat Barker’s aptitude to writing, with some scenes written beautifully, but there was just something that didn’t click with me. I found myself reading for a handful of pages, without being able to remember what had happened in the narrative. I did like the way she opened the novel with Sassoon’s open letter, immediately throwing the reader into the mindset of a soldier who is actually against what is happening in the trenches, and speaking against the government. I find this interesting, as many people would not necessarily have been aware of these feelings during the war, given that propaganda was largely pro-war. I also enjoyed the scenes that focused on the progression of the relationship between Prior and Sarah Lumb, finding myself instantly more engaged with the text at these points, myself almost charmed by prior.
I do think Barker’s ability to interweave the facts of the Great War, and the personal situations of each of the characters into the fictional world of the novel is exceptional; it is done with such fluidity that it is barely noticeable. This makes for a well-rounded narrative based on truth and prevents it having the superficiality of the coincidence of a handful of famous men that happen to be in the trenches together.
What I liked most about the text was its demonstration that people did have reservations about the war, whether that was about the conditions the soldiers were forced to live in, or the implications it had on their mental health, and I think this is borne out of my recent studying of World War One literature, and essays written about this literature, as well as the factual experiences of men. Of course, I knew that the battlefront was not a pleasant experience, and I had heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I had never really read much suggesting that soldiers were aware of the injustice in their situations.
Overall, I would say that Regeneration definitely has some positive elements: the mixture of fact with fiction, the demonstration of anti-war sentiments, and the progression of Prior and Lumb’s relationship. However, I don’t think I would choose to read this book again because it did not have that ‘something’ that prevented me from putting it down. I simply read it because I hate leaving a book unfinished, and I wanted to give it the chance to impress me, but unfortunately, it didn’t.