Regeneration by Pat Barker

Posted August 21, 2016 by Ely in Reviews / 4 Comments

Regeneration Book Cover Regeneration
Regeneration #1
Pat Barker
May 1st 2008

Regeneration is Pat Barker's classic, Man Booker Prize-nominated novel of World War I and trauma.

Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, and army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers's job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients' minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front. Pat Barker's Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.

This is the first novel in Pat Barker's Man Booker Prize-winning Regeneration Trilogy.

I’m sure a lot of you by now know about my love for WWII novels. In case you didn’t, SURPRISE…I love WWII novels. I don’t tend to read historical novels not set around the 1920s-40s, but I’ve been meaning to. In particular, I wanted to read more about WWI since I did a post on it last year. I actually really struggled to find any, so if you happen to have any recommendations please let me know.

I did manage to find Regeneration. In fact, Pat Barker has been on my radar for a little while now. I found a copy of another one of her books—Toby’s Room in Waterstones once, but ended up not buying it. I’d heard a few people talk about the Regeneration trilogy before, so I’d been on the lookout for that one instead. I didn’t manage to find it in the UK, but there was a copy in the library, which made me super happy.

Like I mentioned, I don’t have a lot of experience with WWI books, but I felt like this followed a bit of a pattern. English soldiers come back from the Front, shell-shocked. I’m not criticising that—I really respect the boys who fought, and I completely understand shell-shock. I was just hoping for a little more out of this. I think when this was published in 1991 that it was probably quite unique, but I think mental illness is better discussed these days that this didn’t really have anything new to say.

I wanted to know more about the characters. I wanted to understand why they were shell-shocked and what was going on in their heads. Instead, we mostly got the perspective of the psychologist. I love psychology, but he was just a really uninteresting character in my opinion. I wanted more Sassoon, Owen and Prior rather than Rivers. They were all so much more interesting to me, especially since I really enjoy the poetry of both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

This is an anti-war book, and yet I feel like that could have been presented better. We see very little of the horrors of war, and I think it could have been a lot more poignant and powerful had we seen more. I know enough about the war to be able to imagine what the characters would have gone through, but I would have felt more connected to them and the story as a whole if we’d been given a little more backstory of them.

I think this would be a great place to start for someone who’s looking at reading WWI and WWII novels. It sets up the kind of theme found in war fiction well, even if I don’t personally believe it’s the best one out there.


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4 responses to “Regeneration by Pat Barker

  1. I loved this book! Ah well, to each his own. The Eye in the Door (Regeneration #2) was pretty damned good too, but it looks more at the ‘working-class’ patients of Rivers, and them trying to cope with ‘normal’ life again.

    If you’re looking for WW1 fiction, try Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – it has moments of pretentiousness, but is pretty damn good over all. And there’s an adap. with Eddie Redmayne. I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposed to be great.

    Also, slightly off-centre of the topic, but try Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick, about the Russian Revolution at the end of WW1, and the English author Arthur Ransome who got caught up in it all. I love that book.

    I listened to War Horse in a BBC radio play/audiobook version and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. I think it’s also quite short, since it’s a kids’ book. (And obv, there’s an adap there too! Again, haven’t seen it though.)

    The Parade’s End series is meant to be good, but I haven’t read it so I’m not sure – there’s (yet another) BBC adap. for that… I think it has Benedict Cumberbatch…? Not sure.

    Ha, I kind of like WW1 stuff – you might’ve noticed! 🙂

    • I did enjoy it—it just didn’t blow me away quite as much as I expected it too.

      I’ve read Birdsong and Blood Red, Snow White and enjoyed both of them. I own Parade’s End too, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. It does have Benedict Cumberbatch in it—he’s on my copy of the book. As for War Horse, I tend to shy away from books about animals but if you recommend it, I might have to give it a chance.


      • I was worried about War Horse too – but was pleasantly surprised 🙂

        Also great is ‘Cowards’ by Marcus Sedgwick – it’s actually non-fiction but is written as a narrative. It’s about conscientious objectors in WW1, and what they went through for their beliefs.


  2. I have surprisingly never heard of this! But I might put this on my list because I have been looking for all the WWII books as you know. One day, I will binge read them all (ahaha).

    This does seem like it covers only the surface of war. If it is anti-war, I agree that it should have done a much better job with describing the front lines, the horrors, why exactly the men came back as they did. But either way, glad you enjoyed this enough to like it! 🙂