I stumbled onto Barker a few months ago by reading a novel of hers entitled The Man Who Wasn’t There and realized at once, simply from the power of the writing, that this was a novelist I needed to gobble up. Probably lucky for me that I started with this less shocking, less sad novel, because when I realized that The Regeneration Trilogy was all about this grisly war, I almost decided not to read any of the three. Fortunately, I swallowed my reluctance and picked up the first of the three books. (Incidentally, she won the Booker prize for the last book in the trilogy, The Ghost Road, and I intend to read that and the intervening volume as well.)
This novel is superbly researched, and it begins with a declaration made by a soldier in that war, a man by the name of Siegfried Sassoon. I am going to read to you all of that declaration, since virtually all of the novel is about events that occurred before and after this declaration.
A Soldier’s Declaration
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
There was at this time considerable resistance to the war mounting in England and against the government in power, so much, in fact, that the authorities were reluctant to simply court martial Sassoon for cowardice or desertion (although plenty of other soldiers had been silenced via court martial). Instead, a medical board concluded that Sassoon must be suffering from war-related neurosis and he was sent to a Craiglockhart, a military hospital that treated soldiers who were suffering from a wide variety of psychological illnesses due to the stresses of incredibly ugly trench war-fare.
I think we, especially we in the U.S., tend to get our views of World War I from Hollywood war movies that glorify both the war and the reasons for which it was fought. If nothing else, reading this novel ought to shock us out of any romantic notions about the brutality of that war. Simply reading the number of casualties is sobering to say the least; 102,000 killed in one month in 1917, and literally millions who lived in trenches in conditions that are, at least to me, unimaginable. Protest against the war, especially any hint of protest from men still in military service, was greeted with swift punishment and silencing.
But quite apart from informing the reader about the realities of this war and the conditions the men at the front endured, this novel is a wonderful story about relationships between men. Again relying on historical fact, Barker takes us through a few months in the life of W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychologist and his unusually humane methods of treatment for men suffering from horrible events and the unbearable strains of trench warfare. The task facing Rivers is to rehabilitate and send back to the front the men who are sent to him for treatment. And while his voice on the medical boards is a very powerful one, allowing him to disqualify those whom he thinks are simply unfit (physically or mentally) to return to active duty, he sees it as his duty to send back to the front as many men as he can. However, while he is dealing with Sassoon, he comes to doubt more and more his own role as doctor, and indeed, comes closer and closer to the position declared by Sassoon.
Rivers eschews the electric shock treatments that are coming into vogue at the time and used to shock, jolt, those suffering from psychosomatic paralysis, uncontrollable stammering, loss of voice, and a host of other conditions back into so-called normalcy. Instead, he uses a combination of Freudian psychoanalytic methods and treatments he discovers for himself during the course of his contacts with these poor, trench-weary men. He is especially adept in helping soldiers who are unable to recall battlefield experiences (except in their recurring and horrible nightmares) simply by urging them to remember as much as they can during their days. “Rivers’s treatment sometimes consisted simply of encouraging the patient to abandon his hopeless attempt to forget, and advising him instead to spend part of each day remembering. Neither brooding on the experience, nor trying to pretend it had never happened.”
I doubt that I have to mention that the contents of this book are more than relevant to current events and to the alleged war of liberation now being fought by young men and women. I had not realized that there had been such suppression of dissent in England during World War I, but it really should have come as no surprise. Barker reminds us that, “A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance.” Indeed, what is required is constant and total questioning and soul-searching—action rather than complacence.
Although (or should I say because) this novel was written by a woman, it explores with great insight and tenderness the relationships between men. While it is often very sad, very hard to read, it is beautifully written. I have barely scratched the surface of the many layers of this extraordinary novel. I hope I have said enough to get you to pick it up, even you readers who, like me, hate war novels. I’m quite sure if you pick it up, you won’t put it down until it is finished.