Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991)

Come on, admit it: you’ve avoided reading this because it’s a war novel. It’s okay: you’re not alone. And how can a book about the horrors of war compete, when reading time is limited and it would be so much more fun to re-read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

I am among the resisters, both a war-resister and a reading-about-the-war resister, so it took me a long time to get around to reading the first volume of Pat Barker’s trilogy. That was about five years ago. I’m still a resister in some ways, but I am powerless to resist Pat Barker’s fiction in the end.

I was so impressed by Regeneration that I not only raved about it in the F2F bookgroup that was the original impetus for me to read it, but I willingly re-read it last week so that I could finish the trilogy, which I had fully intended to do five years ago.

::sits quietly, contemplating the books in between::

I didn’t finish the trilogy: I read a few hundred other books instead. And it’s true, that most of those were not war novels.

And now, I adopt my most righteously convincing tone and remind myself that novels like Pat Barker’s are not preoccupied with atrocities: they contain the gamut of emotions and isn’t that exactly what marks the most brilliant fiction. Vehemently I declare that novels like this are not just good books, but works of art: vital, essential, integral to understanding the human condition.

And I look casually out the window, avoiding the stares of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, and Etty Hillesum’s Diaries from shelves around the room: all unread.

Only a tiny part of me wants to hear those rationalisations, the literary salespitch for works that will keep me awake at night. But it’s true nonetheless: Regeneration is about just that.

It’s not only about regeneration of tissues and neurons, but emotional and psychological regeneration, and, in the wider sense, political and philosophical regeneration as well. It is about connection as much as severance, intimacy as much as alienation, and although there are some brutal scenes (told in flashback which does add a slim buffer, a certain amount of distance) there are tender and poignant scenes as well.

If you’re wondering about the kind of haunting images, the degree of brutality, here is one from Burns’ experience. His doctor has managed to find bearable aspects of most patients’ unbearable experiences, but he couldn’t find such thing about Burns and here is how it’s described: “He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed, head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realize that what filled his nose and mouth was decomposing human flesh. Now, whenever he tried to eat, that taste and smell recurred. Nightly, he relived the experience, and from every nightmare he awoke vomiting.”

It’s told matter-of-factly but of course the incident replays regularly, in every present instance of Burn’s reactions, to the point where simply seeing his name on the page conjures up some unimaginably horrific stench.

Barker involves all her readers’ senses and emotions in her story-telling. But she also involves the intellect, so that you can continue to move through the novel. If I were to adopt Rivers’ technique and look for what might make these elements of the story bearable, it is Rivers’ character itself that allowed me to keep turning the pages, because he acts as an interpretive device

Rivers was an actual neurologist, by the way, just as several other characters are also historical personages (Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfrid Owen) and for me his character, by definition a clinical observer obliged to strive for objectivity and scientific evaluation (even if that’s impossible), makes reading the novel bearable because there is yet another degree of distance put between the reader and the characters’ experiences of the horrors of war.

So the events are in the past and usually offered in the context of Rivers’ professional consideration and evaluation and then I add another layer of distance by stepping outside the narrative to examine the literary construct of Pat Barker’s novel. She does something truly remarkable with this novel, I think, subtly supporting her theme with vivid imagery (everyday images, from hens pecking each other to fishheads left behind from a catch) but allowing the heart of the novel to reside with the relationships between the characters.

And it’s these relationships which ensure that I will, at last, finish reading the trilogy, admiring her artistry, vital and integral, with every page turned.