(Penguin e-book, 1996)
The trilogy of books, set during the First Wold War, takes as its starting point the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, a hospital in Edinburgh for soldiers suffering from “shell-shock”. His friend, Robert Graves, a captain in Sassoon’s regiment, had essentially rigged a medical board in order to avoid court-martial after Sassoon had openly and vociferously objected to the conduct of the war. Although Graves feels similarly, he also thinks that Sassoon’s protests are not the way to go about things. Dr Rivers, who’s had some success in treating patients there, soon realises that Sassoon is torn between feeling that the army command is wasting the lives of men and also wanting to get back to the fighting: it is however, his duty to return the man to the trenches. Craiglockhart was also the meeting place of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, maybe the best of the war poets, and there is a lovely scene in which Sassoon looks over some of Owen’s poetry, and revises ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
Although Barker uses real people as characters in the novels – Rivers, Sassoon, Owen and Graves – there are also imagined characters, such as Billy Prior, who is an oddity in Craiglockhart since although he’s an officer he’s also working class, and he’s resolutely hostile to Rivers (at least at first). Prior is definitely shell-shocked, and Barker does an absolutely fantastic job of portraying the nightmares and obsessive behaviours characterising the condition in her characters.
Regeneration, the first in the trilogy, is set primarily at Craiglockhart, and although Sassoon is perhaps the main character, Barker certainly doesn’t concentrate on his experiences: as the trilogy expands, it’s really telling Rivers’ story, and Prior’s. Compared with her treatment of Prior, I think Barker is a little more tentative or respectful in her characterisation of the real people: with Prior she had a lot more freedom, and so he’s much more vividly portrayed. There’s a really awful bit towards the end of the first book where Rivers’s “talking cure” is contrasted with the brutal methods of a fellow-doctor, Yealland, in dealing with war-induced disorders by the use of electro-shock ‘therapy’ to cure flexures of the body and loss of speech. Rivers is morally conflicted throughout the three books about the morality of what he’s doing, however, and questions whether his apparently gentler way of sorting out psychologically-induced physical symptoms is actually any better than Yealland’s, since they’re both trying to cure patients sufficiently to send them back to war, and the same awful conditions.
The Eye in the Door is set mostly in London: both Rivers and Prior now living and working there after departure from Craiglockhart. The novel looks much more at conditions on the home front for people stigmatised by the war, particularly homosexuals, conscientious objectors (“conchies”) and pacifists, and striking workers. The treatment of men and women in prison for objecting to the war, and for hiding deserters, such as the mother, Beattie Roper, of one of Prior’s old friends (who may have been imprisoned as a result of false testimony) is appalling and inhumane. The ‘eye in the door’ refers to the eye painted on the door of Beattie’s cell where Prior meets her, and which haunts him afterwards. Homosexuality, and its demonization by a command eager to promote the ideals of comradeship and close male friendship but less eager to consider that all this intensity might encourage ‘unnatural’ relations, is dealt with interestingly. There’s a contrast between Sassoon’s acceptance of his own homosexuality with Owen’s unrequited love for him, Prior’s indiscriminate bisexuality, and the court case involving actress Maud Allan (playing Salome in Wilde’s play) which, being in the news, creates a great deal of talk and focuses attention on homosexuality.
Lastly, The Ghost Road sees Prior and Owen sent back to France, and their journey towards death is told in conjunction with Rivers’ memories of how death is treated by the Melanesian islanders he had once lived with and whose culture he had studied.
Regeneration and its sequels are extraordinarily moving and very eye-opening (particularly about conditions in Britain during the war), and she doesn’t focus just on the men affected by war, but on women as well, such as Beattie Roper and her daughter Hettie, munitions worker Sarah Lumb, who meets Prior and has a relationship with him, and others. All three books are each not long, but Barker manages to convey a lot – primarily with dialogue, though she has a painter’s eye for a vivid image – in them, and she makes you really care about the characters, real or imagined.
The Ghost Road deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1995, though the other two novels are equally good: the whole trilogy is highly recommended.
The Eye in the Door (1993)
The Ghost Road (1995)