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The first and best part of the Regeneration trilogy,
This review is from: Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy) (Paperback)
Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy begins with 1991's 'Regeneration', is followed by 1993's 'The Eye in the Door' and ends with 'The Ghost Road' in 1995. I read them back-to-back in 2011 and, even though I expected the trilogy to improve on the phenomenal start it made with 'Regeneration' - considering 'The Eye in the Door' won the Guardian Fiction Prize and 'The Ghost Road' won the Booker Prize while `Regeneration didn't win any prizes - I found it actually became less engaging and less focused with each book, particularly with the final book.
All three books are set during World War I. 'Regeneration' focuses on the war poet Siegfried Sassoon as he recovers from shell-shock in a war hospital in Scotland and is treated by Dr Rivers (who is the main character throughout the trilogy); 'The Eye in the Door' is based more on life in the UK during the war, looking at the issues facing homosexual men and those sheltering deserters and/or pacifists; while 'The Ghost Road' sees Billy Prior, a soldier who was in the war hospital in 'Regeneration' and involved heavily in 'The Eye in the Door', return to the war front. This final book is split between Prior's accounts of the war, Dr Rivers's work in a war hospital and Rivers's flashbacks/recollections of his early anthropological studies among a tribal culture.
The main themes binding the books are the sense of futility and hopelessness that drove soldiers to insanity; the emasculating effects of being stuck in a trench (or any place) where you are ordered to do things and have your fate taken out of your own hands. This is contrasted with the paternal relationship that Rivers develops with his patients, the paternal relationships that Sassoon and Prior feel for the soldiers they go to war with, and the often paternally-inflected homosexual relationships that crop up in the final two volumes, but particularly in volume two ('The Eye in the Door').
The concentrated gaze of the first volume, set almost entirely in the war hospital, adds to the intensity of the volume and helps to convey the intensity of the soldiers' experiences, which are described in an often shocking way that pulls no punches (I can't remember ever wincing before while reading a book).
While the second volume switches its gaze, it maintains a similar level of intensity and the grittier dialogue works well in adding to the more 'everyday' narrative. While volume one is set within a very regimented reality, removed somewhat from real life, volume two sits squarely within the domain of everyday life in Britain and Barker proves herself equally adept at capturing both.
Unfortunately the exact thing that gives the first two volumes their intensity - that level of focus - goes in 'The Ghost Road' as the narrative scatters about. I found it hard to really engage with any of the narrative threads, despite having invested in the main characters (Rivers and Prior) in the previous volumes. Rivers's recollections of his anthropological research do tie in very neatly thematically, but they feel too deliberate, too strained, and the natural, genuine feel of the first two books is consequently lost somewhat.
However, overall, this is a very intelligent account of the effects of World War I on everyone involved in it, from the soldiers at the front to the people left at home. I suspect 'The Ghost Road' won the Booker Prize more as a nod towards the quality of the trilogy as a whole than for that book on its own, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read the trilogy. Anyone interested in psychology, wars, war poetry or modern literature should.