The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
I’m writing this review prematurely. I admit I have only finished two of the three novels. I’m doing this because, first it’s not really a review, and second it’s more about my own feelings about the time and place of the novels, as it is about anything.
I’m fascinated by the young men and women of Britain during World War I. So much so, that as an undergrad history major I wrote my favorite term paper on this subject and loved every minute. My soul was in that paper. I’m not a huge fan of poetry, although I do have favorites. Among them are Siegfried Sassoon’s poems of the period. I’ve read Ford Maddox Ford and Robert Graves. I have enjoyed Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. It was a wonderful time for literature so my list goes on and on.
I don’t know what about it is about this period fascinates me so much. It may be that many of my formative years were in the shadow of the Viet Nam war. Although my contemporaries didn’t go to war, my brother did. He was just a boy and came back a boy but with a man’s nightmares.
I felt like I grew up in the shadow of Viet Nam. The war was a major factor in shaping my own belief system and politics to this day. The reflection of the war in the people around me put a ceiling on my ambition and enthusiasm in many ways.
Barker takes us to England during the time of war and has us view the war and society through the eyes of both fictional and historic characters. There are a lot of references about actually being in the trenches, but the characters are in hospital or home on leave, working in the war office, or awaiting a tribunal that will decide their fate. The war progresses, and as it keeps going you see the continued wear and tear on them, as well as inside the heads of the fictional characters. It’s not pretty, but it’s realistic.
I can also draw parallels to today, as the military comes home between tours of duty in places like Afghanistan, they have a hard time transitioning back. Many want to go back and be with those men and women they fought alongside. There is a lot of symmetry, although it’s painful symmetry.
Frankly, a lot of it tears me up.
This is enough analysis for me. The books are thought provoking and worth a read. The real and fictional characters come to life for me. And their pain is real and believable. I guess the best way to close this is with a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, written during those years.
The Poet as Hero
You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented—
My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.
You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
There rose immortal semblances of song.
But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,
And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.
And one more
He turned to me with his kind, sleepy gaze
And fresh face slowly brightening to the grin
That sets my memory back to summer days,
With twenty runs to make, and last man in.
He told me he’d been having a bloody time
In trenches, crouching for the crumps to burst,
While squeaking rats scampered across the slime
And the grey palsied weather did its worst.
But as he stamped and shivered in the rain,
My stale philosophies had served him well;
Dreaming about his girl had sent his brain
Blanker than ever—she’d no place in Hell….
‘Good God!’ he laughed, and slowly filled his pipe,
Wondering ‘why he always talked such tripe’.