Tag Archives: First World War

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker

World War 1 Poster. "Women Say Go".

Attrib Wikipedia

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.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon

attrib Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Review of 'We That Are Left' by Juliet Greenwood

Available from Juliet’s blog.

According to ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon,  ‘We That Are Left’ grow old.

A historical novel set in Cornwall during and after the First World War, Juliet Greenwood’s ‘We That Are Left’ is, I suppose, a sort of coming of age story, except that the main character, Elin, is a married woman.  The plotline meanders but it’s there.  Even at the beginning of the book, Elin is not happy with the way her husband, Hugo, a former Boer War soldier suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, marginalises her and generally treats her as a little girl.  When the war comes, Elin is left to manage her estate, Hiram, by herself, and does so very well, with the help of pacifist, Jack Treece.  Then Hugo returns home in 1918, with, as his manservant, the ghastly Connors, who has already tried to worm his way into their household several times.

Other characters include Lady Margaret Northolme, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, although it is unclear why she is so called, as her character is the complete opposite of her name.  Headstrong, not in the least interested in marriage, passionate about car driving and flying, Mouse heads off to the front, determined to see a bit of action, only she gets too much and pays a high price.  The cast of characters is full of strong women – Alice the blue-stocking, Ida the divorced wife, Catrin the go-it-alone Welsh farmer – counter-balanced by what used  to be called MCPs (Male Chauvinist Pigs), the latter not so convincing as the former.  For me, Mouse’s father is too much of a old fart Victorian pater familias;  there is no love there, no aristocratic toleration of eccentricity, and why is he so keen to get her married off, when she has no need to enter matrimony for money or position?    Connors, however, is a wheedling, nasty villain, who enrages the reader every time his name appears on the page and every time he opens his mouth to make a contemptuous remark to Elin.

The strongest part of this work  is the vivid scenes at the front, ruins and devastation all around, women demeaned by rapes, children – like eight year old, Lisette – left without a home or living family but clinging on to a scrawny puppy.  Most colourful of all were the accounts of the guns shaking the field hospital, as nurses – and any other available helpers, like Elin – moved men with terrible wounds or men who are dying, into the basement for safety.

The English style, I didn’t really notice, which must be a Good Thing.  What I was aware of, however, was that Juliet like to begin sentences with ‘But’ and ‘And’.  Me too.  It works.  It makes sense.  As someone who aspires to write historical fiction, I learned a lot, particularly about writing a historical novel, which is not a history book, but about characters living during a particular period.  ‘We That Are Left’ is always Elin’s story, with whole parts of the War campaign not mentioned, which is as it should be.  If I am to criticise, I would say that the attitudes of many of the characters, especially the women, are too twenty-first century, and the opinions prevalent at that time, on matters like pacifism and divorce, are glossed over.  Surprisingly, votes for women, a truly burning issue at that time, is only raised once.

So would I recommend ‘We That Are Left’?  Yes, of course.

British Legion Poppy

wikipedia.org

Well, Dear Reader, you haven’t asked me about my New Year Resolutions again.  I feel sensitive about these now, seeing as you pointed out how ambitious (er, unrealistic) they were.  Do you remember number 9?

I will learn JavaScript, php and programming in Visual Basic.

During the weekend, I started to teach myself JavaScript through Code Academy.  I worked my way through the first set of exercises.  I learned how to count the number of letters in a word, how to set up a prompt, if statements and how to do simple maths, but then I got stuck when writing code about going to a Justin Bieber concert, increasingly aware that I was learning alongside teenagers who might be my students.  I am still stuck, DR.  I’m sure that it is very important to know the basic theory but what I want to know is how to use JavaScript to do things on a website, and Code Academy is not telling me that… yet.