Regeneration – Pat Barker

Posted on 5 January 2010. Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , |

Regeneration – Pat Barker

A few weeks ago I was happily Twittering and came across a competition run by Penguin Australia. They gave a link to a website depicting a large number of their new reprints and we had to choose a book and tell them why we wanted it…on Twitter. This was a challenge…a 140 character challenge. I chose a book which I can’t recall the title of and popped back to Twitter with something to say only to find a friend had exactly the same idea so I ditched that idea and went back to the page to find another book. The only one I could write anything funny about was Regeneration so I tweeted back to PenguinAus – Regeneration as my body has to look good some time this century – and I won. I was happy until I got the book and realised I’d won a book I wasn’t really interested in so I took it on holidays and I’m glad I did. It’s a very hard book to read and I needed the extended time and concentration a holiday provides.

The book is about mental health during the first world war. We’re looking through the eyes of patients of a mental asylum, people who have been sent there as they’ve had a breakdown and the medical personnel were trying to put them back together so they could be sent back to war. Part of the book is also from the point of view of the best psychiatrist at the mental asylum. Captain Rivers is in the forefront of a new technique to bring the patients in the mental asylum back to normality. Prior to that people were supposed to just suck it up and get back to the front, they were encouraged to forget all they’d seen and heard and just return to normality. Captain Rivers’ technique was to get them to talk about it, to talk to them about their nightmares and make them face what they’d already faced, in other words to be debriefed and to learn to deal with all the horrors that made up WWI. In this book we learn some of those horrors and also learn to understand that it’s generally not one episode that makes a man lose his mental stability, but the accumulation of everything they’d seen and heard, the accumulation of having to stand in the trenches for 48 hours at a time, sometimes kneedeep in water and filth and the accumulation of losing their friends, family and comrades in such shocking circumstances.

I found it very hard to read, mostly due to the topic being WWI which was shocking and what those men had to put up with which was just abominable. Emotionally it was the hardest book to read that I took with me and that includes Janet Frame’s, Owls Do Cry (I’ll be reviewing this book soon). It’s fairly graphic in what happened in the first world war and even more graphic in how some of the men coped. One of the patients leaves the hospital grounds and ends up in a relationship with a young lady who has a job in a munitions factory. We see how some of the jobs she is given turns her skin yellow and we see her loading ammunition belts, ammunition which we understand will be used later to kill the enemy.

Having mentioned all the hard things about this book I now need to tell you that it is very well written. I enjoyed the writing, it is a fairly easy style to read which compensated somewhat for the heavy topic. The characters were well written and it was easy to feel empathy with them. It was possible to see the different layers in the characters and to see that some were sicker than others. Barker shows that it’s not easy having a mental illness in WWI and that it is possible to be somewhat better, but she doesn’t have anyone getting completely better, in fact she shows that even the medical staff can have their own problems and how they deal with them.

Warnings: After all of that I’m sure you don’t need any warnings.

This book is now for sale on the Suz’s Space website.

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