Saturday, February 9, 2013

Regeneration by Pat Barker

A doctor heals “shell shocked” soldiers for the purpose of returning them to the front

During World War I, at the forbidding lodge Craiglockhart, psychiatrist Dr. Rivers helps soldiers who are so traumatized by the explosions and death and tearing apart of bodies they can no longer function.  His mission is to cure their dysfunction, make them less anxious, so they can rejoin their unit. One day he is charged with restoring a prominent war hero, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who in the throes of “madness,” allowed his pacifist statement to be read in Parliament. Other soldiers are also being treated at the hospital, including the mute Billy Prior, the officer who is stuck between two classes, comfortable in neither.  Prior enters into a wartime love affair with a yellow colored working class bomb factory girl.  Real life characters, the tragic Wilfred Owen and the plot carrying Robert Graves, also show up and discuss poetry and war.

Regeneration was not my cup of tea. I thought the prose was pedestrian, studded with long passages of stark dialogue, and the characters were flat. There were hardly any insights into human nature. The sentences were spare but a little cliché. Finally I felt beat about the head. War is bad and there is a moral dilemma in healing a man only to send him back to be killed. Got it!

I always have the same questions about historical fiction – what’s the point? (Although I loved War and Peace.)  There are two points, it seems;  1) Historical fiction should teach you about the time period, make it livelier than a dry textbook.  Regeneration really didn’t, and assumed the reader is familiar with the conflicts of this very interesting time period the customs of one century clash with the technology of another  2) Historical fiction should work as fiction. I felt on a solely literary basis, Regeneration failed. The story could have supported so much more drama.

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