Roberta Writes – Book review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

My review

Regeneration is a novel about World War 1 based on the real experiences of select officers who served at the Western Front. The setting is Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, a psychiatric hospital which dealt with officers who were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, then called shell shock.

For me, this was a fascinating approach to writing about this horrific war. A lot of details about life in the trenches: the on-going shelling and machine gun fire and inhumane and unhygienic living conditions, including the presence of corpses in and around the trenches, are disclosed through the discussions between the resident psychiatrist, Dr Rivers, and his various patients. The horror of life in the trenches is further exposed and explored through the nightmares and other disturbing behaviours demonstrated by the patients.

The focus of the novel is twofold:
1. To explore the devastating effect of prolonged exposure to death and destruction on a scale experienced by soldiers in the trenches, coupled with the guilt experienced by officers who had to carry out ill conceived orders such as going ‘over the top’ and sending hundreds of men out of the trenches and into no-mans land to be mowed down under enemy fire; and
2. To consider the attitudes of the period towards men and the ideology that men don’t cry and that men must grin and bear all situations regarded of the risk to their mental and physical wellbeing in order to be seen as being ‘real’ men and not cowards. The mixture of resentment towards their elders who criticize their behaviour from afar, and despair at having to conceal their emotions, experienced by the young officers makes for difficult reading.

I found the writing very compelling and some of the authors descriptions will stay with me forever, like the following example:

“He’d been thrown into the air by the explosion of a shell and had landed head-first, on a German corpse, whose gas-filled belly had ruptured on impact. Before Burns lost consciousness, he’d had time to realise that what filled his nose and mount was decomposing human flesh.”

For me, there were three main characters in the book, Dr Rivers is based on the real W.H.R. Rivers, who worked as a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart from 1916–1917 and served as a treating physician for Siegfried Sassoon, another of the main characters. Dr Rivers journey in this novel is of personal growth. As he progresses his treatment of Sassoon and delves into the man’s reasoning behind his anti-war declaration which resulted in his interment at the hospital, Dr Rivers starts to question his own role in the war. He treats men who have been psychologically ruined by their experiences and guilt with the goal of sending them back to the front to continue fighting. Dr Rivers own convictions about the ‘rightness’ of the war are gradually undermined and he questions his own motives and makes decisions about his future path.

The character of Siegfried Sassoon is also based on a real person, a decorated officer from a privileged background, who declares he no longer agrees with the way the war is being conducted and the resulting death of so many young men. Sassoon is a bit of a zealot with regards to his convictions and does not align himself with the pacifists who are anti war, as his reasons for the declaration are different. Sassoon is not anti-war but he is anti the mindless continuation of a war which is decimating an entire generation of young men due to strategic errors in military strategy resulting from the clash of old fashioned and pre-conceived methods of warfare and modern technology at the front. Sassoon intends to martyr himself on the altar of a court marshal, but is prevented from doing so by his friend, Robert Graves. Graves convinces the military leadership that Sassoon has suffered a mental breakdown and should be sent to the hospital for treatment under Dr Rivers. Sassoon is not aware of Graves’ actions on his behalf, but agrees to go to the hospital. Sassoon is an admirable character who is unwavering in his convictions. He decides to return to the front at the end of his treatment period due to a loyalty to his men and his belief that he can serve them better at the front than behind a desk.

Billy prior is the other main character. He is an interesting one as he is hostile and difficult at the start of his treatment. Billy suffers from intermittent loss of speech, loss of memory, and night horrors. He is also a chronic asthmatic, and this illness has been conveniently overlooked by the recruitment board and his training officers. Prior also undergoes personal growth over the course of the novel and learns to accept his limitations and asthmatic condition. The introduction of a romantic sub-plot between Prior and Sarah, a munitions worker in Edinburgh, is a welcome relief from the heavy details about the horrors at the front. Sarah’s work and the fact that her skin is yellow and her hair tinged red due to working with toxic chemicals is a reminder that the war impacted everyone, civilians as well as soldiers.

Themes in Regeneration

Set out below are the themes in Regeneration and a quote that demonstrated the theme to me:

Love between men identified as being a good thing for the army in the context of caring and comradeship for fellow soldiers, but within the bounds of what was acceptable to society at that time.

“Fear, tenderness – these emotions were so despised that they could be admitted into consciousness only at the cost of redefining what it meant to be a man.”

Parenthood in the context of officers have parent-like concern for their men and becoming father figures in their roles.

“Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men.”

Regeneration in the context of regrow, change and healing.

“The sky darkened, the air grew colder, but he didn’t mind. It didn’t occur to him to move. This was the right place. This was where he had wanted to be.”

Emasculation in the context of the powerlessness of soldiers in the context of war.

“Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure – the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they’d devoured as boys – consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.”

Mutism in the context of an outward symbol of helplessness and lack of control over their lives the soldiers feel.

“Mute patients did arouse exasperation, particularly, as with Prior and Callan, when their satisfaction with their condition was hardly at all disguised.”

Trenches which are likened to graves in this novel.

“Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army, than to think they’d been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice, saying; ‘Run along, little man, be glad you’ve survived”

What Amazon says

A powerfully moving modern classic from one of Britain’s greatest living storytellers – the bestselling, Booker Prize-winning author of The Silence of the Girls

Recommended by Richard Osman

Regeneration is a masterful and richly immersive portrait of extraordinary lives played out in the shadow of the First World War…

‘Unforgettable’ Sunday Telegraph

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.
‘One of the strongest and most interesting novelists of her generation’ Guardian
Regeneration is the first novel in Pat Barker’s essential trilogy about the First World War. Discover the whole trilogy:

The Eye in the Door
The Ghost Road

Purchase Regeneration

Amazon US

60 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Book review: Regeneration by Pat Barker

  1. A thorough description and review of this book, Robbie. I remember reading about WWI when I was writing the Herbert West Series books, as parts of them took place in or mentioned the war. I was careful to avoid a frivolous fictional treatment of that truly horrific time.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. This sounds like something right up your alley since I know how much you like historical fiction. One of the characters in my work in progress suffers from PTSD. I forgot it used to be referred to as “shell shock.”

    Liked by 4 people

  3. My grandfather once mentioned when I was a teenager that he had shell shock and, almost defensively, that it was a real thing. He had started assuming he couldn’t sign up because he was the eldest and their parents had died, but then he got given a white feather. I really don’t know much more about his war experiences. The book sounds a tough read, but of course that is nothing compared to being there.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. HI Janet, I think the insensitive behaviour of other people, especially older men, towards the youngsters who had to actually go and experience the horror of the trenches, the shelling, and the death, is the worst thing about this particular war.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Great review, Robbie. I read this book quite a few years back, at the recommendation of one of the psychiatric nurses I worked with, and it is a fantastic, but tough, read, even for those with no interest in psychiatry (I knew some of the horror stories, but the novel brings them to life in a compelling and horrifying way).

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Terrific, thorough review, Robbie. Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of reading “Regeneration” (started it a few days ago after you and two other people recommended it on my blog) and it is indeed a compelling, dark, away-from-the-front-lines depiction of the horror and near-total senselessness of “The Great War” and, by extension, most wars in general.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hi Dave, this book is all of those things. I think the author did an excellent job of delving into the psychological effects of war on this generation. This war was worse in some respects than WW2 although what the troops found when they go to the concentration camps must have effected them for life.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Robbie, a great examination of this book. The first quote you use, referring to Burns, is an image that has stuck with me for many many years. Quite horrifying. It was very interesting to read Robert Graves’ autobiography “Goodbye To All That” which is excellent and only written about 10 years after the end of the first war. I also have Sassoon’s semi-fictionalised autobiography “The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston” but haven’t managed to get to it just yet and your excellent review makes me think I ought to be digging it out of a box sometime soon!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Sarah, thank you for your lovely comment. That quote about Burns will stay with me too, together with the dreadful treatment metered out by Dr Yealland. That was very upsetting and just unbelievable. I saw Robert Graves’ autobiography when I researched the list of war books you gave to me [of which I purchased quite a few], but I have acquired it yet. I did purchase Siegfried Sassoon’s book of war poetry as well as Wilfred Owens book. I am a bit poetry fan. I actually also saw Sassoon’s autobiography. So many books …

      Liked by 2 people

  7. This sounds like an incredibly powerful book. Based on how visceral the excerpt was, I don’t think I could read this and not sink into a dire depression. I hope the work climbs the charts, despite my inability to take in such horrors. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. HI Staci, I don’t get upset by that sort of description. I just feel very sad for the effect it had on the man involved. I feel great pity and sadness, but not horror. Maybe I am used to seeing dreadful situations because I live in AFrica. Poverty and disease is as decimating to people as war.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s not the description of the horror that bothers me. It’s that I have a very high empathetic response. If it were fiction, I’d be fine. But because I know it’s a true story, I hurt too much for the victims to experience it in such stark clarity. I have problems just knowing these things happen. I can’t absorb the gritty details and not crumble under their agony.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I bought “The Ghost Road” at a library sale, but have yet to read it as I thought I should read the other two first. This reminds me I should reserve them at the library. Excellent review, Robbie. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent review, Robbie. Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one. I’ve read both Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the final one. It was just too harrowing to continue. I read Siegfried Sassoon’s memoir many years ago, and a lot of war poetry since, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke being among my favourites.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is a compelling read. I found the psychological aspects of this book fascinating and realistic. Dr Rivers self assessment and changing attitude was also interesting and understandable given the casualty numbers and circumstances for the fighting men in this particular war.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a tremendous book based on real characters to look at the war. Your review is excellent. Lately, I find it harder and harder to read books or watch movies about wars. So many lives and resources were wasted. I couldn’t even look at the fear in the eyes of the actors. What horror that the world leaders put in those young soldiers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Miriam, I never watch movies, I prefer not to experience horror in such graphic detail. It is still there in a book, but limited to what I can imagine. This is a very good book, it provides a lot of insight into PTSD and that is why I read it. My son has PTSD.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My friend’s son came back from Iraq suffering serious PTSD. He couldn’t hold a job for years. Eventually her got some jobs, but when the panic attacked, he had to leave the jobs so nobody wanted to keep him. It was years later that he got a job where his father worked. He’s okay now, but it’s been more than 10 years.
        I understand what your meant by the book is limited to what we can imagine.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m impressed with your thorough review, Robbie. I re-read this novel a while ago for my series on fictional therapists. Rivers was ahead of his time but one thing that stayed my mind is the chilling account of a very different approach he observed elsewhere with a sufferer bullied into speaking via electric shocks. But then Rivers wonders if he’s doing something similar in preparing men to return to the front.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anne, Dr Yealland’s dreadful practices stayed with me too. I didn’t mention him or Dr Rivers’ questioning of his own motives in my review because I feel they are core to the plot of the book and it would be a bit of a spoiler if I included them. I agree that those scenes where disturbing and almost traumatic. I kept wishing I could punch Dr Yealland in the nose.


    1. HI Mike, that is good to know. My family visited Edinburgh in August 2019 and we loved it there. I wish I had read this book before I visited, there would have been some additional places I would have visited. I’m hoping to visit again but every time it gets closer for a few months and then gets snatched away again.

      Liked by 2 people

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