In the unforgettable first volume of her ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, Barker introduces and reintroduces many characters who shape the unimaginable reality of the First World War. The war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen meet, as they did in reality, at the Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where the novel is set. Barker reveals some of their therapeutic but explicit poems and statements, such as Sassoon’s ‘A Soldiers Declaration’ which describes the poet’s position in “wilful defiance” to the war. This direct statement was not accepted by authority figures, as to be a pacifist was almost as bad as being a German soldier. The anthropologist turned psychiatrist William Rivers is also an actual person who treats a number of the characters who have experienced some sort of mental instability or who are, as in Sassoon’s case, unsure of his choices after war, in the position of being a pacifist still wanting to fight. For the duration of the novel Rivers identifies some of the techniques he uses to help his patients, and his discoveries of nerve regeneration (where the book’s title comes from). He outlines a main strategy which he helps his treatment of the character Billy Prior. He explains that soldiers who accept their emotions and their feelings are more likely to recover and have fewer relapses over time.
The underlying truth of soldiers’ mentality is explored using fictional characters, real people and a very real war. Barker challenges the construct of masculinity within each soldier and his road to recovery after his unconceivable traumas in France. Male identity was decisively changed by the battlefields in France and Belgium in 1917, towards the end of the war. The deeply saddening ways in which men were told to act when experiencing horrific events is highlighted in the novel and how people’s preconceptions of men were slowly changed in this time. Men who experienced “shell shock” were no longer “sissies, weaklings and failures”. They could finally acquire particular mental health treatment as well as physical treatment. Although many of the characters have endured foul physical injuries, Barker asserts that the memories embedded in their mind forever are not so easily healed. Rivers' job is to facilitate the mentally wounded soldiers' return to war, even if it is not in his personal interest to send them back.
Not only does Barker examine the insanity of war itself, but also the concern with politics and class around the First World War. With her extensive research on this topic, Barker has become an expert on the matter of this insane Great War being dragged out by arrogant and stubborn leaders. She crosses gender, class, geographical and historical lines all at once, showing the contrast between working-class and middle-class soldiers, the ranks they are given in the army and the difference in their backgrounds. It is therefore significant that she is a woman writing a very male-oriented book with a non-biased opinion of masculinity.
Finally, to write fiction about real people who are dead, many of whom have left their own accounts of their lives, is surely a gamble against the odds which strikes me as a courageous and a challenging read.