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The poets have lost their personality
on 3 February 2010
"Regeneration" has a solid concept at its heart: using real people and real events to fictionalise a slice of WW1 history. But does Pat Barker really pull it off?
Rivers, the eminent psychiatrist, was clinically dull as a leading man. I found it hard to believe in him or to accept that his moral outlook had changed much by the end of the story. The stars that should have shone brightly in this narrative - Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves - faded into blandness. These mild, melancholy officers were virtually interchangeable and had little character to set them apart. Meanwhile, too much focus was given to peripheral characters like Prior and Burns. Prior's wooing of a local girl was largely irrelevant and upset the book's pacing (I'm sure those local Scots were talking with a strange Yorkshire lilt, as well). Burns' discharge and subsequent depression in Suffolk led to nothing. It just reaffirmed that the war had warped his mind and we knew that from the start.
In particular, though, it was the meeting of Sassoon and Owen that disappointed me the most. Their friendship at Craiglockhart Hospital felt fake, a kind of paint-by-numbers re-enactment based on Sassoon's real-life annotations of Owen's poetry. Neither of these men seemed shaken to the very core by war, as their famous poems convey so well. Indeed, in this novel, the war barely feels real at all. Sassoon comes home from it, writes his withering "Soldier's Declaration" - and spends the rest of his time playing golf, visiting artists and dining at member's clubs. I can't help but think this complex man really hasn't been done justice.
Pat Barker seems to be more of a historian than a novelist and perhaps it shows. She's got her facts straight but scrimped on the humanity. Am I tempted by the next two books in the trilogy? Not really!