Book Review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

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So I’ve been AWOL for the last couple of months! Don’t worry, I don’t have a vaild excuse, I’m just lazy and disorganised. I also haven’t been reading, like at all, and so that kind of had the knock-on effect that I had nothing really to write about. But in the last week or so I finally got my mojo back and read Regeneration by Pat Barker, so I figured I would start as I mean to go on and actually write a book review.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall thoughts: A fascinating look into the treatment of shellshocked soldiers during WW1 that provided the reader insight into both the patients’ and the psychiatrist experience. This book was thought provoking and definitely made me address some of my own attitudes towards military conflict, however it was sometimes let down by the writing which sometimes felt a little disjointed and prevented me from being completely absorbed in the story. 

Review:
This book was recommended to me and is not something I would usually pick up, which may have made me appreciate this book differently to how I would have done otherwise. Despite this I found it very moving and a valuable reading experience. From the perspective of someone who has trained on mental health wards in the present day it was particularly interesting to compare what I was reading in the novel to what I had witnessed myself in practice. The differences were very obvious, but I was also surprised by the similarities.

Whilst this book had many significant characters, only a handful stay in my mind. The main character of Rivers’, an army psychiatrist working in Craiglockhart in Scotland, was probably the most well developed and also the one that I most looked forward to reading about due to the moral questions that often got posed from his perspective. His dilemma of treating the soldiers for shellshock (what we now know as PTSD) only to have them medically cleared to go back to fight on the front line where they would most likely be killed was one that I was interested to hear his thoughts on. His relationships with each patient and the way he adopted different approaches to suit each one’s needs was also interesting, and was a contradiction to the stiff upper lip man in a white coat that I had expected when I first read the blurb. Other characters that stood out were Burns, simply for how traumatised he was, and Prior who I suspect will take a more leading role in the rest of the books of the series. Unfortunately, characters such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen did not stand out, which is where I feel the writing let them down. They could have been a lot more interesting than they were, but I just felt like their perspectives fell flat. This might also be put down to my personal lack of knowledge about the real life versions of these characters, and a lack of knowledge at the issues that their characters posed (such as pacifism) meant that their impact fell flat on me. On the other hand, surely the job of the author is to make the characters stand out despite my lack of knowledge?

Other aspects of this book that grabbed my attention were the continuing themes of questioning masculinity and how toxic it can be for men at times, as well as the comparison of war experienced for the men at the front to those simply hearing about it back home. The inclusion of some issues with gender roles and also the mentioning of homosexuality and how it was viewed at the time was a welcome surprise, although I do wish that these had been explored in a little more detail as they may have helped to add some discussion to the issue of masculinity, and also may have added a little more representation in the novel.

My final thought for this book is that it was a very short and very valuable read, which inspired me to learn more about a period with which I am not familiar. It was my first venture away from young adult fiction for a very long time and I can happily say that it encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone a little more and open myself up to more difficult and serious reads. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with a slight interest in either mental health issues or the period of WW1. Taking the action away from the battlefield and focusing on the mental health care and aftermath of the fighting provided a fresh perspective on the things I am used to hearing about WW1, and I am looking forward to picking up the next book in the series.

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