(Book 1 of the Regeneration Trilogy)
This book covers some of the same ground as Ben Elton’s praiseworthy The First Casualty, although in an entirely different way. Both try to retrofit as mainstream largely post-60s values towards homosexuality, pacifism, and atheism (in the latter case by omission in writing as if Christianity was as marginalised as it is today, an historical absurdity), but in their defence it could be reasonably argued that of course homosexuals, pacifists and atheists/agnostics were plentiful. While Elton surrounds his message with action and a crime story, Barker instead goes deeply into conversation and rumination, and in both cases there’s so much more to the book than mere preaching.
Barker ambitiously imagines encounters between real and fictional historical figures. Of course once she’s imagining dialogue that’s not recorded her characters are all fictional, but her painstaking research (and the availability of so much detailed material) makes for some powerfully authentic writing. Moreover she has an impressive ability for informed empathy: she asks herself, “What would Dr. Rivers, or Sassoon have been thinking? How would they have reacted?” and comes up with some fascinating and plausible answers. Plausible? Hang on a minute: they seem plausible to me, a guy who’d never even heard of Rivers or Sassoon before reading this book! It would be interesting to hear reactions of others who had studied (or knew) them.
There is not a standard plot, and much of the book is composed of recreations of counselling sessions between ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers and their psychologist. Barker’s version of Dr. Rivers is a real triumph – one of the most developed characters I’ve probably come across. Hats off to Barker for having the skill, compassion and intelligence to convince us of Rivers’ skill, compassion and intelligence by what she has him say and do. He’s not a quaint historical curiosity, but clearly someone Barker has read extensively and admires. The way she’s immersed herself in writing from the time makes her characters not ‘just like us’, but still wonderfully real reminds me of O'Brian's marvellous RN stories (much as the authors portray quite distinct attitudes towards battle).
PS: 2015, and I’ve just listened to an interview/Q & A session Barker did with the BBC Home Service (one I think I could have contributed a question to were I minded to – in seeking questions the show contacted people like myself who’d written reviews). Anyway, really interesting how wrong I’d got it. Rivers actually destroyed all his records – Baker said that Rivers’ biographer likened researching Rivers to researching a 9th Century monk. It was actually out of this *dearth* of material that Baker felt the freedom to invent. It wasn’t as if she did no research: she read case studies of the time and medical journals, and clearly other WW1 historical material (e.g. at one point she mentioned that she’d reduced the number of amputations per minute on some battlefields from 60, thinking the figure must have been inflated, but on further research found it confirmed), but there was much more (inspired, impressive) invention than I assumed. It was a fascinating interview, and Baker came across as a strong individual, not at all seeking approval or trying to impress, but nonetheless doing so.