‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker *****

I have been meaning to read Pat Barker’s Regeneration – the ‘classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men’ – for such a long time, but only got around to it very recently.  Probably her most famous novel, Regeneration has been considered a modern classic since its publication in 1991, and is the first book in a trilogy of the same name.  The book has been highly praised.  Margaret Forster calls it ‘a novel of tremendous power’, the Sunday Times ‘brilliant, intense, subtle’, and, fittingly, Time Out heralds it ‘a fine anthem for doomed youth’. 

9780141030937Set in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in southeast Edinburgh, Regeneration takes as its focus three very well-known figures – Dr W.H.H. Rivers, who pioneered shellshock treatment for soldiers, and two war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.  Robert Graves also makes odd appearances throughout.  Barker has also created, alongside these figures, the character of Billy Prior, unable to speak and only able to communicate on paper, who feels just as realistic.  Rivers’ job is to make the men in his care healthy enough that they can be returned to the Front.  ‘Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds,’ the blurb continues, ‘the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors’ which await them.

Regeneration opens at the point at which Sassoon has expressed his objections to the war in writing, in a piece which he calls ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’.  In consequence, he is sent directly to Rivers, who receives the news of his arrival as follows: ‘Can you imagine what our dear Director of Medical Services is going to say, when he finds out we’re sheltering “Conchies” as well as cowards, shirkers, scrimshankers and degenerates?  We’ll just have to hope there’s no publicity.’

Justine Picardie writes that ‘what gives the novel its authenticity is Pat Barker’s impressive ability to capture her characters’ voices and moods.’  Indeed, Barker has a wonderful understanding of each of her characters, whether historical figures, or invented ones.  Her interpretation of them made them feel highly realistic, and at points in conversations – particularly those between Owen and Sassoon – I had to remind myself that I was not reading a piece of non-fiction.

There is such humanity to Barker’s examination, and I very much enjoyed the little glimpses of surprise in the behaviour of her characters, which often seem to be at odds with their public personas.  When Sassoon first arrives at Craiglockhart, for instance, Barker writes that he ‘lingered on the drive for a full minute after the taxi had driven away, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and ran up the steps.’ The descriptions which Barker gives of her characters do not just remark on the superficial; rather, they tend to have a lot of depth to them, and often err on the chilling.  She describes Sassoon in the following way: ‘Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly onto Sassoon’s face.  Pale skin, purple shadows under the eyes.  Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder.  No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell.  His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady…  So far he hadn’t looked at Rivers.  He sat with his head slightly averted, a posture that could easily have been taken for arrogance, though Rivers was more inclined to suspect shyness.’

Other reviewers have commented upon the language used in the novel, believing it to be too simplistic.  However, this was not the impression which I received.  There are a lot of poetic descriptions, and the dialogue particularly is filled with nuances and undercurrents.  The more stark, matter-of-fact language which has been used at odd times serves to highlight the horror of wartime.  Given the nature of the book, I felt as though the balance which Barker struck between these descriptions and the examination of her characters was perfect.  The moments of dark humour, which can be found from time to time, also worked very well.

Regeneration is very well situated historically, and scenes are vividly set in just a few sentences.  One of Barker’s particular strengths here are the comparisons which she makes between wartime and civilian life, particularly with regard to way in which she shows how quite ordinary things can be triggers for what soldiers had experienced in the trenches.  When a character named Burns is travelling on a bus, to give one example, she writes: ‘A branch rattled along the windows with a sound like machine-gun fire, and he had to bite his lips to stop himself crying out.’  She also demonstrates an impressive emotional range in her explorations of isolation and freedom, wellbeing and mentality, nightmare states and hallucinatory moments, and the profound effects which each of these things can cause.

There is, of course, much in the novel about medical experimentation, and how best to treat such troubled men.  Thoughts of, and explorations around, masculinity, have been cleverly woven in.  Barker makes it clear from the outset that the methods which Rivers has adopted in his radical treatment plan go quite against the moral, ‘manly’ values instilled in him, of demonstrating only strength and valour.  He, and too his patients, were not expected to show any signs of weakness.  Of this, Barker observes: ‘… he was already experimenting on himself.  In leading his patients to understand that breakdown was nothing to be ashamed of, that horror and fear were inevitable responses to the trauma of war and were better acknowledged than suppressed, that feelings of kindnesses for other men were natural and right, that tears were an acceptable and helpful part of grieving, he was setting himself against the whole tenor of their upbringing.’  She goes on to write: ‘The change he demanded of them – and by implication of himself – was not trivial.  Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.’

I had a feeling that I might regret leaving it so long to pick up Regeneration, and I am.  It is a stunning novel, compelling from the outset, and filled with moments of harrowing beauty, and poignant reflections on conflict and its worth.  I already have the second book in the trilogy, The Eye in the Door, on my to-read pile, and am very much looking forward to continuing with it sooner rather than later.  I imagine that it will be just as moving as Regeneration proved to be, this wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, in which Barker is constantly aware of the significance of every tiny thing.

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One From the Archive: ‘Toby’s Room’ by Pat Barker **

First published in August 2012.

Toby’s Room is the newest novel by Booker Prize winning author Pat Barker, best known for her Regeneration trilogy.  The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a young woman named Elinor Brooke, who has returned to her childhood home from her lodgings in London. Intent on becoming a painter, she has been living in the city whilst she attends the Slade School of Art, and is determined to hold onto ‘the first few spindly shoots of independence’ which she has gained since moving away.

We are catapulted into her family dynamic from the outset, and the atmosphere in the Brooke household which Barker has built up seems incredibly strained. Elinor’s parents ‘saw very little of each other. She needed country air for the sake of her health; he lived at his club’. Elinor, who is almost continually chastised by her terse elder sister Rachel, is closest to her brother: ‘… she and Toby were the only members of the family who kept no secrets from each other’. The relationship between the siblings is rather a tumultuous one. One of the first scenes in the book describes how, whilst out on a walk, Toby begins to passionately kiss his sister, and, despite first pushing him away, she suddenly ‘felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted in the pit of her stomach had begun to melt’.

Barker states that ‘all her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe’. Indeed, Elinor is left in a crisis once the aftermath of Toby’s actions and his possible intentions towards her come to light. She does not know how to act or what to do in order to distance herself from him completely, and is forced to search for her own identity in an increasingly confusing world.

The second part of the novel opens in 1917 on a hospital train as it ‘crawled through the fields of Kent’. The character of Paul Tennant, a former lover of Elinor’s, is introduced. He is badly wounded, ‘strapped to a stretcher, staring up at the station roof where hundreds of bright-eyed pigeons cocked their heads at the noise and confusion below’.

Toby’s death is also stated rather matter-of-factly in the second part of the novel: ‘For stretches of time he might not have died at all. He wasn’t present, but then he hadn’t been present for most of the past two years. There was no body. No grave. No ceremony’. One of the most moving moments – perhaps the only moving moment – in the entire book is when his possessions are sent back to his family in ‘a big brown-paper parcel entwined with thick, hairy string’. Elinor becomes fixated by the way in which her brother died, unable to just accept his death as a condition of war.

Whilst the majority of the characters in Toby’s Room are purely fictional creations, Barker has placed several real-life figures into the novel. These include Virginia Woolf and Henry Tonks, whose pastel drawings which record the facial injuries sustained by soldiers during the First World War are now held at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. This blurred divide between fact and fiction is an interesting technique to use, but it is unclear as to which elements featuring real-life characters have been crafted entirely by the author.

A third person omniscient perspective is used throughout the novel. The narrative voice which Barker has used is quite chatty and feels overly informal at times. Some of the dialogue between characters, too, feels rather too modern for the period in which the novel is set. Extracts from Elinor’s diary are also woven into the book. Again, her narrative voice feels too modern and colloquial in its style and does not fit with the period. The reader is rather detached from the characters throughout, perhaps because of Barker’s chosen narrative style. Elinor’s own narrative voice does not really add anything personal to the story, but more or less reiterates what has already been stated. Some compassion for her is felt, but in the grand scheme of things, the reader is incredibly removed from her.

Barker’s writing style works well overall, and she is particularly skilled at describing squalor, death and decay. The majority of the novel uses well written and rather confident prose, but this technique does not seem to have been used consistently. Whereas some of the passages are beautifully and startlingly written, some of the other paragraphs fall rather flat.

The story itself is an interesting one, but in no way is Toby’s Room as engrossing or absorbing as it could be. No real sense of place is created in the novel, until France is described quite a way through. Despite its World War One setting, parts of the book do not seem to be culturally grounded. Whilst the themes are far-reaching – death, disability, adapting to wartime conditions, the loss of innocence and the occasional regression back to helplessness – the actual execution of these themes does not do them justice.

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‘Insurgent’ by Veronica Roth ***

Insurgent is the second book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, the first of which is about to be released as a major film.  The sequel to Divergent was first published in 2012, and both books have been reissued with lovely new covers by Harper Collins.

The Divergent series is in the Hunger Games vein of books, and includes many of the same elements.  There is a strong female narrator who occasionally becomes a little self-obsessed and irritating; a dystopian society which is divided into different and incompatible factions; ever-present violence and peril; and a love story of sorts between its heroine and another teenage character.  It is also fast paced, and full of foreboding and adventure.

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior – or Tris, as she is known throughout – is in the Dauntless faction, due to her bravery, courage and lack of fear. She is also Divergent, which essentially means that she is compatible with more than one of the five different societal groups – Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Abnegation – and can align herself with whichever she pleases.  This sectioning of society is rather a simple technique, but it works well.

‘Insurgent’ by Veronica Roth (Harper Collins)

The premise of Insurgent is as follows: Tris, the protagonist of the series, has survived a ‘brutal attack on her former home and family’.  This novel deals with her coming to terms with the way her life has been so drastically altered, and fighting against those within authority – hence the book’s title, which points to a group of people who act in opposition to establishment.

The story follows directly on from Divergent, and begins with the guilt which Tris feels over killing one of her peers, Will: ‘I woke with his name in my mouth’.  The action starts immediately afterwards, when Tris and her companions immediately jump from a moving train to get to the Amity headquarters.  One of the main threads of plot within Insurgent is the way in which those who are ‘factionless’ wish to establish a new society, which does not consist of any factions at all. They claim that they need the help of those who are Dauntless to achieve this.

Tris is an orphan, her parents having both been killed in the struggle, and the only family member whom she is still able to see is her brother, Caleb.  She and the Dauntless group are continually under threat from different factions, and much of the action within Insurgent is concerned with the Dauntless trying to overcome those who are trying to suppress them.  Tris is not the most likeable of characters, and her behaviour does not always feel consistent.  Lots of characters can be found within the novel’s pages, many of whom were introduced in the first book, and some of which are not very well developed at all.

The present tense and first person narration which Roth has made use of throughout suit the story and its action well.  All of the senses are used from the very start, and help to build a complete picture of the dystopian world in which Tris lives.  Roth’s writing style is quite simple, and is therefore accessible to a relatively wide audience.  Some of the details which she weaves in can become a little repetitive, however – I lost count, for example, of the number of times in which Tris smelt or ‘breathed in’ apples or ‘wet pavement’.  The pace of the whole works marvellously, and the plot arcs ensure that something is almost always happening.  Despite the continuation from the first book to the second feeling rather smooth, the storyline did feel a little drawn out at times.  Unsurprisingly, Insurgent ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, and the place in which it finishes is intriguing enough to make most want to read on and see how Tris’ story concludes.