This is not a glorification of war book. Instead, it talks of the war and the battlefield in graphic and horrible detail that shows the bravery of the men who fought, but also the corruption of the British class system and the money interests of big business, especially as the war drags on long after if should have with men dying not to secure the victory, but to line the pockets of business men who are more interested in profits than the lives of soldiers.
Many of the characters in the novel, including the therapist Rivers, are drawn from actual historical figures. In fact, this novel actually moves back and forth between the battlefront, the hospital where Rivers treats both the physically and psychologically wounded, and cultures in the south seas where Rivers spent time as researcher and doctor before the war started. The so-called tribes he dealt with were descendants of head-hunting people and both the heads brought home from raids and the captives brought back from those same raids played pivotal roles in their cultural lives.
Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all zest.
As you might guess, this is not a happy book, but then none of Barker’s books is happy. Just as her earlier novels focused in on blue-collar workers and their struggles for a decent life given the brutality of market economies, so too in this one she focuses not on officers but on enlisted men who have everything to lose in fighting the war, and yet very little to gain by its so-called successful conclusion.
Besides the sadness of the events, the grimness of the novel is accentuated by Barker’s simple and often harsh prose. Billy Prior, who is another genuine historical character who appears in all three of the novels, is unashamedly bisexual. Many of the sex scenes she describes are cold and repelling, and yet there is honesty in her prose that shines forth. Like the prostitutes who are the focus of her second novel, Blow Your House Down, there is nothing sentimental about Prior’s descriptions of his sexual relationships with either men or women; sex is simply a part of life, sometimes bartered, sometimes given as a gift, sometimes taken on the fly.
For this reader, both this novel and Regeneration were most interesting because of the accounts of the varied and horrific sorts of physic conditions suffered in the trench warfare of World War I, and the surprisingly compassionate care William Rivers gives to the men whom he encounters at Craiglockhart’s, the British hospital where the wounded are sent to be ‘fixed’ and sent back to the front. Of course, when Rivers succeeds, his charges are sent back to the French front, not because they are truly healed, but because they can, at least, talk again, or walk, or sleep without impossibly horrible dreams.
We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think—at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.
…the bayonet work. Which I will not remember. Rivers would say, remember now—any suppressed memory stores up trouble for the future. Well, too bad. Refusing to think’s the only way I can survive and anyway what future?
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