In an attempt to find some cheap English books in a country that isn’t big on stocking foreign language books anywhere, I headed to the internet to find some cheap Popular Penguins. But, they were actually cheaper on Book Depository, so there you go. I still managed to get a good cover after all.
In a hospital in Scotland in 1917, several patients are being treated by psychiatrist, William Rivers. As these patients slowly open up, patients that include famous war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, about the war they have been fighting, Rivers finds himself questioning whether or not he really wants to send these young men back to the front in Europe.
I’m not sure whether my distinct lack of knowledge of the works of World War 1 poets – including Owen and Sassoon – is a good thing or not when reading this. In some ways, I feel like I’m missing a lot of references and allusions to poets and works I don’t know. On the other hand, I quite like coming to a novel fresh, and free from any ideas about what people should be doing in certain situations, based on their reputations. As such, I’m not sure there’s any way I can comment on how these people are portrayed here, even though they are basically the main characters – I an only comment on how they are as fictional creations.
Taking this into account, then, I really enjoyed reading about them. I love Sassoon as a character – there’s so much logic behind his cries for peace in Europe that you can’t but help feel for him, being trapped in this world that doesn’t belive in anything of the sort. His frustration at knowing that he’s not really crazy, but is here because he’s asked the questions no one else has ever bothered to ask, is palpable, and this slowly influences Rivers, as the relationship between the two of them mutates into something quite different.
If you read this novel, and only this novel, as research into soldiers in World War 1, you would easily be forgiven for thinking that every officer in the British Army at the time was gay. While this clearly isn’t the case, the characters Barker has chosen to assemble here all tend towards that end of the spectrum, and it’s not just coincidence. Well, yes, it’s coincidence to an extent, but by choosing this theme, Barker is able to explore masculinity in a different way. That is, after all, what this novel is all about – the English man at war, and how he reacts to what is going on around him. By having gay characters – people already seen as less masculine – the entire tone of the novel shifts. To what, I’m still not quite sure, but she certainly subverts the image of big, masculine, slightly dumb men breaking down in the trenches.
It’s important to remember that most of the people in this hospital are not crazy. With the benefit of 21st century thinking, things like PTSD have become so much a part of the mainstream way of thinking it, and so it can be easily forgotten that people didn’t think these things were real less than 100 years ago. Perhaps the most terrifying scenes of the novel come not from the interviews of soldiers back from the war, but the way another “psychologist”, Lewis Yealland, who uses electroshock therapy to basically torture his subjects into admitting that there is nothing wrong with them, thereby allowing him to return them to the battlefield. It’s a harrowing sequence, made even more so by the fact that Dr Rivers himself is watching, but is unable to stop it from happening.
A large part of the second half of the novel is taken up with the budding romance between Billy Prior and Sarah, a woman working in the munitions factories in London. The romance is fine in itself, but it feels like something of a distraction from the main storyline in the hospital, and somehow seems like an excuse for Barker to include some stuff about feminism in the early 20th century – maybe she thought the book was too male oriented. Either way, these sections seem less interesting, or maybe just less important to the crux of the novel, creating something of a lull in the main narrative push.
This is, as the back of my copy proudly proclaims, the first novel in the Regeneration trilogy. I’d be interested to see what Barker does in the other two, because this certainly seems like a complete novel. It’s certainly not a traditional war novel in any sense, and the insights she gives are, for the modern reader, nothing new. But it is interesting to read the clash between currently accepted wisdom, and the Edwardian mindset of people before and during World War 1. This is not a perfect novel, but there’s enough to keep it going, and keep one hooked.