I am quite the wrong sort of reader for this book, and therefore the wrong person to be reviewing it. War and soldiers are not my thing at all. Poetry, I don’t get on with, either. I read it because it was the St Andrew’s Book Club book. Last month it was Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, which I found charming and thought-provoking at the same time, but you join a book club to expand and develop your reading. When I realised what Redemption was about, my face fell. Maybe I was prejudiced against it before I started, although, taking this attitude, sometimes you can pleasantly surprise yourself.
Regeneration, the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, is based on a true story. This must be one of my unfavourite expressions. Over the last few years, every film and every television programme (as well as books) tends to be based on a true story.
This particular true story concerns Siegfried Sassoon’s incarceration in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917, following his publication of Finished With the War, A Soldier’s Declaration, in which he called for World War 1 to be ended. Sassoon was sent to army psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart, following intervention by his friend Robert Graves, as an alternative to a court martial. The idea was that Sassoon must be suffering from a mental disorder to write such things, whereas the premise of the book is that Sassoon was sane and everyone else at that time deluded.
Sassoon himself is not portrayed as an attractive character: smug, self-satisfied and arrogant. Wilfred Owen gushes. Graves is indecisive and allows himself to be belittled by Sassoon. We follow the fortunes of other patients – Burns, Prior, Willard, Anderson – but there is no feeling of moving forward which comes with a plot. The only ‘good’ character is Dr William Rivers (who is called ‘Rivers’ throughout) but he has no story arc. He carries on trying to do his best for his patients, using gentle techniques, as compared with the cruelty of Dr Yealland in London. Rivers becomes ill. He gets better. He carries on.
I’m not criticising the literary quality. Pat Barker’s depictions of civilian life during war time were well researched and understood and her civilian characters (Sarah and her mother, Ada) believable. Her written style is excellent, her descriptions of scenes and how people moved and acted excellent, but this was a novel of unleavened grimness, without a glimmer of humour. Not a very funny subject, you might think. However, people in grim situations tend to develop their own black humour (but not here).
That the conduct of the First World War was reckless and caused needless carnage is something we’ve known for many decades. Yes, Sassoon was right, and I appreciate that people in government, and many of the general public in 1917 didn’t see it that way, but a century later Regeneration is not telling us anything new.