“Regeneration” is an antiwar war novel, in a tradition that is by now an established one, though it tells a part of the whole story of war that is not often told — how war may batter and break men’s minds — and so makes the madness of war more than a metaphor, and more awful. That in itself is reason enough to read it. But the novel also belongs to another tradition, the tradition of literary realism. Ms. Barker is a writer who is content to confront a cruel reality without polemics, without even visible anger and without evident artifice.
This novel, like her others, is testimony to the persistent vitality of that kind of writing. Fashions change, theories emerge and fade, but the realistic writer goes on believing that plain writing, energized by the named things of the world, can make imagined places actual and open other lives to the responsive reader, and that by living those lives through words a reader might be changed. Pat Barker must believe that, or she wouldn’t write as she does. I believe it, too.
THE SCARS OF THE GRANDFATHER
“World War I was the first subject I ever wanted to write about,” Pat Barker confided. “When I was 11, I wrote a poem about it. My grandfather had been bayoneted in the war and he used to get stripped to the waist to wash at the kitchen sink before going out in the evening and I would see the wounds. He didn’t speak about it until he was an old man.
“I wanted an angle not done before,” the author of “Regeneration” said in a telephone interview from her home in Durham, England. “I encountered the figure of Rivers, the doctor, through my husband, who is a neurologist and familiar with his experiments on nerve regeneration. Others knew him as an anthropologist. It was this business of connecting these roles with his work as a psychologist in 1917. Rivers is intended to be the central consciousness in the book, not Sassoon.” She thinks Siegfried Sassoon was “tremendously heroic” but today we accept — almost too easily — that he was right in his pacifist views about the war, whereas W. H. R. Rivers’s pressure was very modern: to make soldiers well so they could return to the trenches.
The year Rivers spent at Craiglockhart War Hospital “changed him enormously,” she said. “It’s a very gloomy, claustrophobic place and relationships with the patients were very intense. He’d been a man very objectively rational, someone who found it very difficult to integrate his emotions with the rest of his life, very much a product of his Victorian and Edwardian education. He learned to integrate his nurturing side. I don’t like to call it feminine,” she noted with some irony, “but what you have really is a sense of mothering the men, not fathering.”
— LYNN KARPEN NYTIMES
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