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Regeneration trilogy

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Regeneration, first American editionFirst U.S. edition, 1992
By Pat Barker
Novels in series ▽ Novels in series △

Regeneration, 1991

The Eye in the Door, 1993

The Ghost Road, 1995

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Literary, historical fiction

Writing language

Author's country

3 novels; Regeneration novel: approx. 66,000 words

The war which is never over

It may seem odd an acclaimed series of novels near the end of the twentieth century should feature characters from the period of the First World War. Or that issues from that war time should continue to resonate with the reading public.

At least part of the popularity of the Regeneration novels can be explained by our seemingly never-ending re-evaluation of that cataclysm. Other major conflicts have come and gone before and since, each leaving wreckage in its wake. But that war was different—is different. It changed a generation of people and generations of their descendants right down to the present day. It changed countries and power structures around the globe. Societies were shaken up or, in some cases, turned upside down. Art, literature and culture—in the broadest sense—have been re-conceived in much of the world with the Great War as the watershed. Most of all, that man-made disaster for humanity has upset how we think of ourselves.

Not in one fell swoop. Immediately after the war frantic attempts were made to put it behind us. But how we and our world were changing leaked out in successive decades, as we continued to try to come to terms with it.

Slightly distant war

As late as the 1990s, Pat Barker put her novel-writing finger on several of the most recent ways we've revised our thinking about ourselves as a result of the war. And she placed her dramas working through those issues among the people at that earlier place and time—namely among the doctors and their soldier patients being treated for shell shock at an Edinburgh hospital during the so-called Great War. They're in the war but at enough distance from the terrible action to let them—us—reflect on what they were going through.

Barker's common but affecting prose, heavy on the everyday dialogue, makes us comfortable in the refit. I don't know what readers in those years of war, and in its following years of supposed recovery, would have thought of Barker's exploration of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, gay rights, class conflict, anti-war activism and hints of feminism. But for us readers of Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, it all comes across naturally—both in its back-then context and with today's different understanding.

Of course, Barker isn't the first novelist to have raised the effect of the horrors in that "war to end all wars", nor the social and political issues to arise from it—not nearly. That process began in the war's aftermath with works like All Quiet on the Western Front, Under Fire, A Farewell to Arms and dozens of others intent on proving war is hell and exposing the effect on the generation that goes through it.

But Barker's is a more modern psychological examination. The putative protagonist is a psychiatrist drawn from real life, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, who, like the soldiers he tries to heal, is conflicted about the war and faces his own nervous issues. However, another historical figure, Siegfried Sassoon, dominates the first novel in the trilogy, Regeneration (1991). At the opening of the novel, as in real life, the well-known poet, who has been decorated for bravery in battle, issues a public declaration protesting the war and is brought under the care of Rivers. Much of the novel is taken up with discussions between Sassoon and Rivers, as well as with Sassoon's visiting poet friends and fellow soldiers, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, each of whom has a slightly different take on his duty in the war.

Why we fight on

In case the discussion of the mental qualms of poets appears too effete, several other patients with more horrific experience of warfare are thrown in. One of them, Billy Prior, is a working class soldier who has risen in the ranks, disdains the class biases in the British forces and carries on a sordid affair with a local woman while staying at the hospital.

Most everyone in the end does their duty and we learn a new answer to a question often pondered: why do men who know and hate war continue to throw themselves into it?

Earlier novels may have attacked the jingoistic propaganda that drives young people blindly into the devastating fray, but Regeneration offers a more complex insight. In the novel's early going we may have some hopes the soldiers and even Dr. Rivers, after all they've witnessed, will refuse to perpetuate the slaughter further, but by the end we understand why this couldn't happen. Both Sassoon's opposition to the war and his acquiescence to rejoining it have to do with supporting and saving the men he fights alongside—the modern "band of brothers" trope.

But still there is something a little too pat about the first novel in the trilogy, Regeneration. The plot works out—whether happily or sadly—a little too neatly in the first novel. But, not to worry, it unravels in the sequel.

The poets' dilemmas recede into the background and Prior, who is now working for a branch of military intelligence, comes to the fore in The Eye in the Door (1993). Through an abrupt, shockingly rough tryst with another officer, Prior is revealed to be bisexual. His complicated sexuality, his working class roots and his connections with underground pacifists, whom he may or may not have betrayed, add myriad layers to his contradictions. He has to consult Rivers again, though the doctor is still struggling with his own demons. Meanwhile paranoia has reached the home front and a witch-hunt against homosexuality is being carried out in British social, political and judicial arenas.

Conflict in the soul

The concluding Ghost Road (1995) is mainly Rivers's story, though all the elements of the first two novels are woven into it. We dig into his past dubious medical research. Rivers also dwells on a prewar anthropological excursion among an aboriginal people struggling for their existence—in particular his friendship with a medicine man, Njiru, whose spiritual, primitive, yet more humane, world view comes to haunt him. One memory picks out a key point of the Regeneration series:

At that moment Njiru would have told him anything. Perhaps this was the result of that time in the cave when they'd reached out and gripped each other's hands. No, he thought. No. There had been two experiences in the cave, and he was quite certain Njiru shared in both. One was the reaching out to grasp each other's hands. But the other was a shrinking, no, no, not shrinking, a compression of identity into a single hard unassailable point: the point at which no further compromise is possible, where nothing remains except pure naked self-assertion. The right to be and to be as one is.

We are often told violence is part of our human heritage. Warfare, like the primitive struggle for survival, is supposed to be an expression of our savage nature erupting through our civilized veneer. But the conflict in the human soul is different from what is described in the cliché. We have within us the desires both to extend compromising hands and to harden back into our basic selves. Neither is right or wrong in any objective sense—they're just the way we are. War as a great social enterprise invokes both urges on a wide scale, as well as on the individual level. We see this struggle within the characters of the Regeneration trilogy. They aren't debating the merits of taking part in war so much as they are struggling to find their natural selves in the battle between their opposing impulses.

The Ghost Road also brings to a tragic close the stories of Prior and Owen. Prior especially fears near the end he is out of place, that he is, so to speak, not his real self.

Critiques of the novel present a variety of profound analyses, most notably of the Njiru episodes, and derive a depth of profound themes, not all of them consistent with my own understanding. The richness of Barker's material by the time she gets to the third novel in the series lends itself to this multitude of interpretations, almost all of which are valid to some degree.

I don't know if any of these ideas really played a role in the psychology of soldiers during the First World War. Barker appears to have done an enormous amount of research and imagining, and it is not always clear—nor should it be—where one leaves off and the other begins. I'm inclined to accept it all, if not as an explanation of behaviour at a certain period in history, as an examination of human nature variously expressing itself under social pressure at any time.

The Ghost Road may or may not stand on its own—someone who's read only the third novel in the series will have to tell me. But the Regeneration Trilogy is rather unique in that the sequels to the first instalment turn a very good work into a great and a greater one.

— Eric


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