some reviews – #3, the regeneration trilogy

When my brilliant and beloved mother-in-law discovered to her astonishment that I hadn’t already read Pat Barker’s WW1 novels, she promptly gave me all three for my birthday. I started reading them on the flight back from Australia and about three sentences in, made myself slow down so that the experience of reading these books for the first time would last longer. That’s exactly how to-my-taste they are.

Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly on to Sassoon’s face. Pale skin, purple shadows under the eye. Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder. No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell. His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady. Rivers raised his own cup to his lips and smiled. One of the nice things about serving an afternoon tea to newly arrived patients was that it made so many neurological tests redundant.

Note that I didn’t particularly remember this passage, and when I went back to Regeneration to find something to quote, I just flipped over a page or two before I found this. And now look how much work this paragraph is doing. It sets two scenes – not only the cozy tea-time, but also the hell from which Sassoon has recently arrived. It begins to stage what will be an immensely complicated and morally charged relationship between Sassoon and his doctor, and in doing so it indicates the extent to which Rivers is already unusual, preferring informal exchanges with his patients to tests that reinforce the hierarchical distance between tester and subject. Rivers is exceptionally humane – he is, we’ll discover, a very good anthropologist as well as a psychoanalyst. And Sassoon is, in fact, a deathless poet. The power distance between doctor and patient is unusually small; and it’s only going to get smaller.

And if that reference to sugar tongs is not a deliberate evocation of Wilde, I will eat my hat.

Cecily. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

Gwendolen. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

I could have picked any paragraph. They’re all that good. And the prose is all that translucent: simple, beautiful declarative sentences, layered each on the next until you are no longer reading but hovering over Rivers’s shoulder, watching. And Barker respects the intelligence of her characters, and gives them room to breathe and think.

There’s a lot of thematic overlap between this trilogy and my last two reviews, as it happens. (Well, it’s not exactly startling, since I make several fairly strict demands of narrative and can’t be bothered with it otherwise. Anyway.) Regeneration tackles madness – Sassoon isn’t, as it happens. Book two, The Eye in the Door, examines sex and class and will make you grieve for its innocent monster. The last book in the series, The Ghost Road, looks into the face of death, and it includes some of Barker’s finest use of the source materials, Rivers’s books on the societies of the Solomon Islands. (The heat and singing reminded me of Ten Canoes.) I keep going back to Google Books to read the originals and try to figure it out. That was awesome. How did she make that work? How can I do that?

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