I put off reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy for a long time, even though I loved the first book in the series when I encountered it in my early 20s, even though I began researching World War I for a writing project of my own three years ago. I suspected that the trilogy would be very good, and, sometimes, very good books make me nervous. Usually I feel all of the things one should: invigorated, my faith in literature (and even life!) restored to such a degree that all of the frustrations of fiction writing feel worth it. But there are also times when a book is too good, when I begin think, what’s the point? No matter how hard I work I’ll never be able to do this.
Regeneration tells the story of Dr. W.H. Rivers and the shell-shocked officers he treats during World War I; some of these patients are historical figures like Rivers himself (Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among them), others, like the series’s second protagonist, Billy Prior, are invented. The two subsequent novels, The Eye in The Door and the Booker-prize-winning The Ghost Road, follow Rivers and Prior through the slums of Manchester, the wards of military hospitals, the Ministry of Munitions, the South Seas, and eventually back to the Front, all while investigating questions of class, loyalty, platonic and erotic love between men, the ethics of pacifism, sanity, and western notions of death. Yeah, This is a lot to chew on, but the novels never feel overwhelming or artificial because Rivers and Prior are both so deeply human. Like the books they inhabit, these characters are empathetic but never sentimental, inquisitive but never didactic.
Which is all to say that Regeneration was every bit as good as I remembered, and the following two books were even better than I’d hoped and feared. Barker’s prose is sharp and precise, her dialogue natural and often slyly funny. She incorporates an astonishing breadth of historical detail into her story in a manner that feels measured and effortless and devastatingly real. And then after 600 pages of moving but restrained third-person narration, Barker gives herself permission to leap into the voice of Billy Prior (via his journal), who writes the following after a horrific day on the front line:
And I stumbled along at the head of the company and I waited for the sun to go down. And the sodden thing didn’t. IT ROSE. It wasn’t just me. I looked on every face. We hadn’t slept for four days. Tiredness like that is another world just like the noise, the noise of bombardment, isn’t like other noise. You see people wade through it, lean into it. I honestly think if the war went on for a hundred years another language would evolve, one that was capable of describing the sound of the bombardment or the buzzing of flies on a hot August day on the Somme. There are no words. There are no words for what I felt when I saw the setting sun rise.
Okay, Pat Barker. You win. I quit.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Frances de Pontes Peebles was born in Recife, Brazil and raised in Miami, FL. Her debut novel, The Seamstress, recently won the Elle Grand Prix for Fiction in 2008. Her short stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, Indiana Review, The Missouri Review, and The O. Henry Prize Stories Anthology 2005. She currently lives in Chicago. Read more about her at www.francesdepontespeebles.comSome books easily slip from my mind – a few months after reading them, I can’t recall their titles or plots. This probably says more about my memory than the quality of the books. But there are stories that stay with me. Months pass and I will recall a character, or a particularly moving scene, or a vivid landscape. My favorite books always haunt me.In 2008, I read the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker and can’t shake it from my memory. Barker’s interconnected novels – Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road – are inspired by actual accounts of WWI soldiers and their military psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers. The bulk of the trilogy takes place away from the war, where Dr. Rivers must treat severely shell-shocked soldiers in order to send them back to the trenches. He’s deeply conflicted about his work and the war, as are his patients. Barker doesn’t flinch from depicting the soldiers’ physical and emotional wounds, but her descriptions are never overwrought. The most heartbreaking scenes don’t take place on the front lines but at home, where Barker’s soldiers can’t cope with normal life. In all three books, the consequences of war are more terrifying than war itself.Another great book is The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. It consists of three novellas translated from the Japanese. Ogawa’s characters seem gentle and conventional, but their loneliness drives them into dark places (both real and psychological). These are modern-day scary stories with eerie and surprising outcomes. Ogawa’s prose is spare and lovely, which makes the novellas even more haunting.More from A Year in Reading 2008