REGENERATION is the first novel of a trilogy bearing the same name. In this book novelist Pat Barker tells the story of shell-shocked British officers receiving treatment in Edinburgh's Craiglockhart War Hospital under the care of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. Barker chose to build the novel around real events and real characters: Dr. Rivers was a neurologist and anthropologist, and two of the principal characters are poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
Sassoon, a successful and decorated commissioned officer, became disillusioned with the inhumanity of the war and what he called its deliberate prolongation. Though not a pacifist himself, he was influenced by pacifist friends and wrote a statement denouncing the suffering imposed on the troops. The military establishment determined that he was suffering from shell-shock and sent him to Rivers for rehabilitation.
Rivers and his moral outlook are the centerpiece of Regeneration. The book takes its name from his groundbreaking work on nerve regeneration, and we follow his difficult work with the many physical and mental manifestations of war service among his patients at Craiglockhart. ''It was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors,'' Rivers wrote. Patriotic and supportive of the war himself, he faced the constant dilemma of treating men sent over the edge by life in the trenches and readying them to be sent back for more.
Regeneration emphasizes themes of social class, gender roles and homosexuality. The war experienced by those fighting it could never be known by those watching from home, and the bonds formed in service are shown to be complex. Emotional regeneration, through writing and talking about experienced horrors, reflects Barker's choice of Rivers as a central figure. In using real people and events, she shepherds us along ground already slightly familiar to the reader who knows anything about Sassoon's and Owen's poetry. She is a crisp and effective writer; with a trilogy in mind, she could have laid out the territory in pure fiction. I understand that the rest of the trilogy emphasizes the fictional characters. I look forward to reading THE EYE IN THE DOOR and the Booker-winning THE GHOST ROAD, because as good as Regeneration is, it is clearly an unfinished story.