Regeneration – Pat Barker

Regeneration – Pat Barker (1991)


Regeneration is one of those novels that I never expected to like, let alone love. There was once a time in my life when the First World War didn’t particularly interest me at all (strange, right?!) but this all began when I was assigned a series of novels and poems about the First world War as a result of my AS-Level English Literature class. I thought for this post, I’d talk a little more about one of those books.

I first read Regeneration on a plane to Greece – something to pass the time. My copy now is dog-eared, with passages covered in highlighter, a slightly bent cover and a cracked spine – I have read it more times than I care to say, but at that moment, it was fresh and new and had that delicious new book smell.

Looking at the cover, I was not particularly filled with enthusiasm. I’d read the blurb a few times too, Wilfred Owen vaguely rang a bell, but I had no clue who this Sassoon bloke was, or what he’d written. Well, I thought, I’d better have a read of it now before I go back to sixth form. I opened the cover and was entirely lost for the next hour or so.

I’m an incredibly quick reader (my father still cannot get over the fact that as a child, I read the Order of the Pheonix in one afternoon) and I devoured this book completely. From the first page up to realising that Owen was going to be sent back out to the front, I was lost to the world. Instead of being sat on an aeroplane surrounded by bored and whiny children, I was stood in the doorway of Craiglockhart War Hospital, watching the life there as it passed by. I was watching Robert Graves berate Sassoon for his actions. I was sat beside Owen as he crafted Anthem for Doomed Youth, quietly reading over his shoulder as the words took their shape upon the page. I saw the care that Rivers had for his patients and squirmed at the complete lack of compassion evident when I came across Lewis Yealland.

It is by no means the best novel I have ever read – I say this honestly. I find the main character, Billy Prior, to be inherently dislikeable. His scenes irritated me (unfortunately, considering this was meant to be a book about him..) and I didn’t care for his journey. Barker’s writing is by no means sophisticated, and yet this book has remained lodged within my heart and I think it will always have a spot there.

It was the poetry that gripped me. It was the admiration that Owen had for Sassoon which touched my heart – not Prior’s plight. Perhaps it is because I found their words so much more powerful than Barker’s. The novel begins with Sassoon’s ‘Declaration’, not Barker’s own words, and I feel this sets a precedent for the whole book. She is a fair enough writer, but it is the words of those who were truly there which have the most impact. I first read The Dug-Out as part of this novel and it is one of those poems that will stay with me for a long time; one that will remain a favourite.

Having said that I do not particularly like Barker’s somewhat pedestrian style of writing, there are several moments in the novel when her descriptions remind one of the true horrors at the Western Front. One of the most startling moments in the book for me was when it was revealed why one of the men could not eat. He had been blown into the air and landed, face first onto a decomposing German corpse – his mouth and nostrils full of rotting flesh. It brought me up short. I had known that War Was Bad (obviously) and that many men came away from it, irrevocably changed, but this was something different to losing a limb. I felt a curious mixture of revulsion and sympathy. I don’t know if anything like this happened, or if it is simply something that Barker made up but it certainly lingers long in the mind.

I watched the film a few years ago too – I found it on Youtube under the American title. James Wilby became briefly my Sassoon and I longed desperately for a remake; the resemblance was uncanny – even down to the slight dimple in his chin and those unmistakeable ears. I loved his performance, I loved the way he spoke – he was exactly as I imagined Sassoon to have been. Of course, I shall never know exactly what he was like – there are voice recordings out there, but no video. His diaries paint a picture as does the correspondence both from and about him; and yet there will always be a part of him that remains elusive to me. Stuart Bunce was a lovely Owen, though the disappearing stutter did become somewhat irritating. Jonathan Pryce was also delightful as Dr. WHR Rivers. I felt little towards Jonny Lee Miller (yes, that Jonny Lee Miller) as Prior, though that is most likely down to my own inherent dislike of Prior. It’s a very muted film in terms of colour – greys and browns and khaki greens – shot through with the pinched white faces of men tormented by what they have seen. It ends with a reading of the Parable of the Old Man and the Young, a fitting ending, certainly. It is by no means the best film in the world, and one of the opening shots entirely spoils the ending, but it is a fair enough adaptation. I do still long desperately for a remake – though I cannot say who I would want to play Sassoon. I heard a while ago that John Hurt is to play him for some ITV drama that is yet to be broadcast, but I shall remain sceptical until I see it.

I have the other two books in the trilogy on my shelf – one of them a secondhand copy bought from Camden Market one chilly winters day – but I am yet to pick them up. I’m not sure why. Regeneration is what brought me, in a roundabout sort of way, to Sassoon and Owen and Graves and all those who wrote to express their anger and dismay and horror at the war that they were a part of. I don’t think the other two will have quite the same, odd magic that the first one did – for me at least.