My Favourite…Historical Novel

The ‘My Favourite…’ series is a new weekly feature in which I will be putting the spotlight on some of my favourite books of all time! This week, I will be sharing my favourite historical novel.

Regeneration by Pat Barker



Image courtesy of Goodreads.

I studied this book as part of a school syllabus on World War One – books chosen by schools don’t usually have enjoyment as their core motivation. And I didn’t enjoy Regeneration, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. How is it possible to enjoy a book that is so frankly harrowing? Yet I still love this book as something of true value, a brave look back at a period of history so easy to shy away from, that manages to act as both a reassurance and a warning.

Seven Reasons Why I Love This Book

1) Billy Prior

Billy is a complicated character, simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable. I found that his dark humour, cynicism and complete contempt for the upper classes made him much more relatable than the more wealthy and self-assured characters. ‘…somewhere in the back of their…tiny tiny minds they really do believe the whole thing’s going to end in one big glorious cavalry charge.’

2) Bravery

The author does not take the easy road when it comes to dealing with the horrors of World War One. Although readers are never actually taken to the trenches, brutal imagery – from Billy’s nightmares and the sickening electric shock treatment – confronts us barefacedly. Barker’s skill is in provoking empathy, rather than simply using insensitive ‘shock factors.’

3) Incorporation of real events

Barker deftly weaves real-life people and events into the book, including Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Dr Rivers. I liked the way this made the stories more tangible, without that quality of detachment that normally comes with reading about history.

4) Issues tackled from class to gender

Through its diversity of characters, complex and ambivalent, the novel perfectly illustrates how the war shook up society’s conventions irreversibly.

5) Challenging

The novel challenges and explores a range of issues including gender and class. As readers we are also challenged to confront any of our own black-and-white interpretations. Can Billy have an honest relationship with Sarah Lumb if he never opens up about the suffering he has experienced? Was it wrong for women to enjoy the new freedom granted to them by World War One? Is it possible to view Rivers as a humane character despite the fact he is not anti-war?

6) Hope

Rivers’ kindness, Sassoon and Owen’s friendship, Billy’s dynamic relationship with Sarah – all of these provide hope and prevent Regeneration being utterly bleak.

7) Words as defiance

I loved the way language is used by the soldiers as a means of defiance. Sassoon and Owen bond touchingly over their careful amendment of the latter’s poem, determined it will evoke the agonies of their experience as accurately as possible. However, perhaps the clearest example of written protest is the caustic bitterness entrenched in Sassoon’s anti-war declaration:

“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.”

Sassoon’s full declaration can be read here.

If you enjoyed Regeneration, you might also like the historical novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Do you agree with my selection? Feel free to share your opinion in the comments!

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