I come and go on historical fiction. Really. There are some aspects that are delicious to imagine, and then ponderous writing or plot-formation that makes me crazy. I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and while I enjoyed both, neither changed my somewhat indifferent attitude towards historical fiction/romance/whatever. But then I read Pat Barker’s first Regeneration Trilogy novel, and maybe changed my mind.
Taking place during World War I, Regeneration is the story of the relationship between poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. Rivers is working on nerve regeneration and seeing young men affected by war has given him plenty of food for thought. Sassoon, having written a pamphlet decrying World War I’s continuation, is sent to Craiglockhart after a diagnosis of “shell-shock” is ascribed to his pacifist leanings and writings. Here, we also meet aspiring poet Wilfred Owen in the beginnings of his writing “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (one of his anthologized poems) and other fictional patients within the hospital.
Barker provides meaty, thought-provoking material in her work: masculinity, sexuality, war vs. peace, state-sanctioned violence and its effects on citizens, work/professionalism, and many others. I like the way she interacts with historical figures and weaves a fiction that is both beautiful and horrifying at once. Some of the soldiers’ memories of the war broke my heart and filled me with horror–how could anyone live through that and not be damaged for life? There’s also this incredible line where Rivers observes that the men he observes are at once both old men waiting to die and young schoolboys frozen in time. It’s an extremely apt way to look at victims of combat, and one that haunted me long after I finished reading.
If you’re looking for a cute, fun, fluffy historicized romance, this is not your book. But, if you like literature about literature (the poetic references might be familiar if you took British Literature in high school or college and studied the War Poets), beautiful writing, or World War I subject material, then I think you’ll like this book. It’s a slow read, but simply because I wanted to savor it as I went along.