Read on 7…

Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy

In the first of these articles I wrote about Graham Swift. Today I look at another contemporary novelist, Pat Barker.

She has written 14 novels, the most recent, ‘The Silence of the Girls.’ Its story takes the reader behind the scenes of the Trojan War (Helen, Achilles, Hector, the wooden horse etc) and views it through the eyes of a young woman. It is wholly original, fascinating novel which, having read a library copy first, I have since bought and re-read in paperback.

Pat Barker often sets her fiction in wartime, and first established herself as a major writer with her Regeneration Trilogy (‘Regeneration’, ‘The Eye in the Door’ and ‘The Ghost Road’.). The final volume won the 1995 Booker Prize.

Graham Swift’s fiction is sheer imagination, while the novelist John McGahern, whom I have also written about, draws extensively on personal experiences. Pat Barker mixes fact and fiction. At the end of each volume of the Regeneration Trilogy, she gives the main sources she has used for her research.

The trilogy is set in the last year of the First World War. Its central historical character is Dr Rivers, a neurologist and anthropologist. In ‘Regeneration’ he is working at Craiglockhart War Hospital where one of his patients is Siegfried Sassoon. At the time Wilfred Owen is also a patient at Craiglockhart and he meets Sassoon there. Barker skilfully blends history and fiction as she recounts some of Dr River’s work at the hospital. It is rare for novelists to present a character so much ‘at work’. Almost always we observe fictional characters ‘at leisure’.

In the final volume ‘The Ghost Road’, Dr Rivers has moved to a London Hospital and is again treating war casualties suffering mental breakdown and shell-shock. The experiences keep bringing back memories of his anthropological research 10 years earlier in Micronesia. There he witnessed ‘primitive’ rituals, among people who had traditionally been head-hunters. This juxtaposition challenges the reader to seek any moral difference between the mass slaughter that was happening on the Western Front and the head-hunting raids these peoples conducted on neighbouring islands.

All three novels are concerned with trauma and recovery; madness and sanity; war and pacifism ; and survival.

The books are powerful, direct and intense. Allusions to Sassoon’s and Owen’s war poetry often underlie the descriptions of the horrors of war. And these are not just the horrors on the battlefield, but also the physical and psychological horrors which so many soldiers suffered.

These books are ‘historical novels’. But we should not read them solely for their historical interest. They can often shed light on contemporary life too.

Pat Barker herself once said: “I think the historical novel can be a backdoor into the present which is very valuable.”

I wonder if readers have a favourite historical novel and would like to share this with us.

Lance Christopher

PS Books can be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, and can also be borrowed digitally and, once the coronavirus lockdown has passed, as print copies, from Wiltshire libraries.

You need a library card and an email address so that you can register with RBdigital. If you don’t already have a library card, you can join online by completing a form and then receiving an email with your library card number.

More information about this service and a link to the joining form can be found at