Comprising of Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road and published over a four-year period, Pat Barker’s trilogy is a deeply humane, complex exploration of the horrors of the First World War, its impact on the English class system, a closely observed commentary on the loss of personal identity and the relationships between men in military and moral conflict.
Based on her own grandfather’s experiences of the war, Barker mixes fact and fiction. She introduces fictional characters (most memorably, Billy Prior) alongside real-life people, including pioneering psychologist W.H.R. Rivers and poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. And, taking an undeniably anti-war stance, Barker inserts Prior (and others) into known places, encounters, situations (Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, the Ministry of Munitions London, Amiens, the trenches of France and Belgium) and spins fictional conversations and events.
Arguably the strongest of the three novels – and certainly the most literary – Regeneration is the scene-setter for what is to follow and is set almost exclusively at Craiglockhart in 1917. The hospital is an institution exploring the psychological effects of war and associated traumas, with Rivers an advocate, like Freud, of compassionate talk and dream therapy.
Central to the book is the evolving relationship between Rivers and his patient, Sassoon. A highly decorated young officer, the poet is deeply conflicted between his duty to king, country and men under his charge and his belief (voiced loudly and publicly) that the war is being unnecessarily prolonged in the interests of a few. The costs, counted in the lives of men, are too great. As an army doctor, Rivers’ duty is to persuade Sassoon out of his ‘temporary aberration’ and for him to return to the trenches silenced.
It is this concept of duty, sense of associated nationalism and masculinity along with resulting moral and ethical conflict that forms the core of the trilogy.
Sassoon’s opinions impact on Rivers, enforced by the experiences of other patients, including Billy Prior, a working class bisexual officer suffering from mutism and debilitating asthma attacks. Over a period of approximately three months, Rivers’ values and beliefs are seriously questioned as he becomes exposed to the views of conscientious objectors (‘conchies’) and pacifists who have ‘adopted’ Sassoon (although he himself distances himself from such views) and veterans’ tales of the horrors of trench warfare (interestingly, many of the patients want to return to France, anxious of being labelled as cowards or skivers).
The Eye in the Door
The weakest of the three novels, The Eye in the Door shifts its focus from Craiglockhart to London and Billy Prior, where, due to Rivers’ recommendation, he is temporarily posted to the Ministry of Munitions. Rivers himself has also left Edinburgh and is now based in a London hospital.
Barker continues to explore the chilling impact of the war on the minds of men, and Prior in particular. But, less successfully, The Eye in the Door also follows a weak plotline whereby Prior tracks down a former school friend and, now, militant conscientious objector.
Billy still sees Rivers and the novel is at its best when exploring trauma psychology along with the political issues of the day – Prior’s indiscriminate bisexuality is contrasted with Sassoon’s sexuality and the (real) campaign against homosexuals (labelled as German spies and sympathisers) being waged by right-wing MP, Noel Pemberton Billing. It’s Prior’s occasional sexual tryst with the married Capt Manning (also a patient of Rivers) that explores the breakdown of class divisions and British social order – a fellow-officer, Prior is a working class boy from the streets of Salford, Manning a privately-educated member of the upper-classes.
The Ghost Road
Sassoon is relegated to a minor character in the third book in the trilogy. Yet, as Billy Prior prepares to return to France, having been passed fit for duty, so he plans engagement and marriage to munitions worker, Sarah. But it is the ever-present Rivers who emerges as the central character.
Interestingly, as the war moves towards its end and the inevitable horrors of the final push on the Western Front, so Rivers find himself remembering more and more of his past – most significantly his pre-war anthropological expedition to Melanesia. Parallels of war, identity, civilisation and friendship between men abound as the doctor reminisces, alone in his lodging or office.
The Ghost Road was awarded the 1995 Man Booker Prize.