Barker, Pat. The Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road). Penguin, London, 1996. F; 1/19.
Barker was interviewed in Paris Review (#227) and I was impressed with her answers. She’s British and 75 years old, and although known for sexually explicit writing and featuring gays, she doesn’t seem much interested in popular ideology. Asked whether she thinks of herself as speaking for the gay community, she replies: “No. I’m not sure you can speak for a community without belonging to it, and I’m not gay. I don’t think a writer should speak for a community anyway.” Writing in the 1990s, advocacy for homosexuality and a pacifists might have been a little more out-there than they would seem today, but my impression is this capable writer just tells it like she sees it.
In these three novels we get a carefully historically-accurate picture of World War I from an English perspective, starting in a Scottish psychiatric hospital where “shell shock” (today we would say PTSD) patients are treated. Eye in the Door deals with imprisonment and other now archaic treatment of pacifists and gays on the home front. I thought Ghost Road warfare scenes were in the same league as All Quiet on the Western Front, The English Patient, The Invisible Bridge, and Hemingway.
Dr. W H R Rivers, a historical anthropologist and psychiatrist, treats in Regeneration historical war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owens among other patients who are fictional, and is shown as ahead of his time in respecting them as human and seeing his own weaknesses as similar to theirs. Nearly all the cases Rivers sees are war-trauma-related conversion disorders (formerly called hysteria) whose distress presents as paralysis and other physical symptoms. Sassoon has published an anti-war diatribe and instead of being court-marshalled is treated as psychologically disturbed, and then returns to the front in France.
Billy Prior, a fictional Army officer from a working-class background, is the other main character through the three novels. He’s brilliant, bisexually active, has a sardonic sense of humour, and is cured of his psychological mutism by Rivers. He appears again in Eye in the Door working for the Munitions Authority, meets his fiancée Sarah, and tries unsuccessfully to get an old family friend imprisoned for anti-war activism released.
The Ghost Road won the Booker prize in 1995 and I think it’s the best of the three short novels. Prior returns to France where he commands a platoon of infantrymen very near the end of the war. His experiences are intercut with those of Rivers who is back treating psychologically wounded soldiers, and who in the past spent some time as an anthropologist studying Melanesian head-hunters. There are moments of light release from the terrible battle experiences. Prior takes an interest in a teenage boy in one of the towns they stop in while driving the Germans eastward and follows him into a pig barn:
Nothing particularly attractive about him – dead white skin, splotchy freckles, curious flat golden brown eyes – not that it bothered me. After two months without sex I’d have settled for the pigs.
But the overwhelming theme of Ghost Road is death and cultural and political attitudes to it. The Melanesian head-hunters have been punished by the colonizing English for their human sacrifices, and now focus their religion around skulls kept in shrines, but have paradoxically lost some of the life and energy of their old beliefs and practices. Although we know Rivers survives because we see him practising subsequently, there are chilling scenes where his and his colleague’s murder are possible and at times look inevitable. He develops a relationship with one of the most powerful Melanesian characters, a medicine man who projects a knowledge of and intimacy with spirits that support his authority. In his practice Rivers treats a young soldier terribly head-injured who, unbeknownst to the doctor, was rescued under fire by his former patient Prior. Switching among the scenes of Rivers’s practice, Melanesia, and Prior’s diaries in the trenches feels cinematic as we sense an approaching climax. The dates in the diary count down toward November 2018 and the end of the War, but a dangerous attack on a fixed German position is looming.
I can’t say I was transported by charm and literary fireworks in Barker’s war story. But it’s transparent writing and a deftly-handled historical plot that had humour and character, and pulled no punches around sex, duplicity, war, and death. It held my interest and I ended up admiring the author. 8.3/8.4.