The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

I regret reading these books so far apart. I read Regeneration in 2012, The Eye in the Door last year and The Ghost Road was my first book of 2015. I had forgotten a lot of the intricacies which I feel would have had much more impact had I read them one after the other. I kept remembering things mid-way through sections; I wish I had read them all in one go.

The Regeneration trilogy follows Rivers, a doctor in WWI who was an actual person; he used tentative talking therapies in shell-shock patients. The novels also follow Billy Prior; a working class soldier who, in the first book, is mute because he is traumatised. The writing isn’t so simplistic to suggest that this is a story of patient and doctor: Rivers seems, in his own way, equally traumatised.

The Ghost Road sees Prior about to go back to the trenches for his fourth time. It is heart-breaking to know that it is 1918 and that the war would be over soon. Wilfred Owen, another real-life fictionalised character, is with Prior and they fight together. Wilfred Owen died a few weeks before the war ended. The final scenes are wrenching even though there have been lots of omens; it’s his fourth time, he’s used all of his luck. He notices birds at the station, an omen of death. Prior’s narration when he is on the front-line changes intermittently with diary and narration. I found this interesting; the gulf between what Prior has written, what might survive, and the things that he thinks.

Prior and Rivers only meet once, briefly, in The Ghost Road. Rivers comes down with the flu virus that ultimately killed more people than the war did. He hallucinates about his time in Polynesia before the war, presumably quite straightforwardly. Because each protagonist is given alternating chapters, I found myself wanting to get back to Prior because I wasn’t sure what the backstory truly added. I would have preferred to hear more about the people on the wards. Though I suppose that has already been addressed in the previous two novels. The sort of society these men left and have to go back to after witnessing such monstrosities seems unthinkable to me. How do they recover from that? I like the techniques Rivers uses on one patient who is scared of the war but believes that Rivers is taking away his masculinity by using a technique that cures his leg paralysis. I would have liked more of that, more of Rivers helping men come to terms with what they had been through. I think that is why the first book is my favourite.

Prior is an interesting character, I like him. He loves sex and he doesn’t really care who it’s with. I think that having him be from a working class background (though he seems to have ‘made good’) allows him to travel around the class system. He is treated in ways that he wouldn’t be if he weren’t an officer. Class and gender changed irrefutably after the war but, as Rivers says, we can’t attribute everything to it. Things were changing anyway and Barker conveys this with such sensitivity. Her story is worn lightly; she can say such intelligent things without it getting in the way of the narrative. The Regeneration trilogy is well worth reading.

Because I felt that I missed out reading these books so far apart, I am now going to read the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood all in one go. So prepare for some Atwood-heavy posts! I will be blogging about other books I’ve read over Christmas though.