I read this because I loved Barker’s harrowing, gorgeously written, revelatory Regeneration trilogy, about shell-shocked soldiers in WWI. Having read Border Crossing… I highly recommend Regeneration.

Tom Seymour, a psychologist, is walking along the river with his soon-to-be-ex-wife when a young man leaps into the river. Tom jumps in and saves his life. And then discovers that the young man, Danny, was once a ten-year-old boy who had gone to prison for murder after Tom had examined him and testified that he was capable of understanding the consequences of his actions. Now both Danny and Tom undertake a quest to understand what really happened on the night of the murder.

Border Crossing, unfortunately, had a lot of elements that many genre readers dislike in mainstream fiction— the middle-aged white man with a failing marriage, the under-characterized wife who wants a baby, the anti-climactic and inconclusive ending in which the point appears to be that real life has no point, a general air of gloom— but without much to compensate. (Regeneration has none of those elements, with the possible exception of gloom. I would argue, however, that it is tragic rather than merely glum.)

The characters are under-characterized. We don’t learn much about Tom other than that he’s a sad sack with a failing marriage (and dubious professional ethics, but those seem to be there to make the plot work.) The wife just wants a baby. The social worker is dedicated. Danny appears to be a creepy, sociopathic, possibly psychotic manipulator who murdered because he was fucked up by an abusive childhood… but is that really all there is to it?

Given the tone of the rest of the book, I started expecting to never find out whether or not Danny is actually a murderer. So I was pleased to find that we do get an answer to that. However, it’s not an interesting answer. SPOILER. Read more... )

I was left with an overwhelming sense of underwhelm.

Border Crossing: A Novel

Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy)
The heartbreaking final book in Barker’s WWI trilogy.

Prior returns to the front by his own choice, where he joins Wilfred Owen, while Rivers continues treating mentally and physically brutalized soldiers at home. Meanwhile, Rivers remembers his time spent doing anthropological research on a Melanesian island, where the British ban on head-hunting had destroyed the local way of life. That part of the book steers neatly between the Scylla of Look At Those Wacky Primitives and the Charybdis of They Are Simpler Yet Wiser Than Us; the similarities and differences between their ways and the British ones, and between Rivers and a Melanesian healer, are complex, not easily summarized, and lead to the novel’s powerful conclusion.

The “eye” motif of the last book is replaced with a “head” motif in this one. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it plays out with wrenching elegance. The heads and skulls on the island are sometimes the product of violence, sometimes attached to captives who may live out their natural lifespans in comfort (so long as their head isn’t needed), and sometimes represent a deep respect for the process of life and death: the stacks of skulls are the link to their pasts and ancestors and families, the essential element of their culture without which it may not survive, and the product of the deepseated human urge to kill. Rivers repeatedly deals with horrific head injuries occurred in a war that makes pointless all his efforts to heal and to understand, the war without which he would never have done his best work.

Everything we are, everything which makes us special and unique, is in a ball of grey-pink gelatin protected by a helmet of flesh and bone: a prize, a lover’s face, a surgical problem, a link to the holy, an object of horror, the source of poetry.

The Ghost Road (William Abrahams)
A sequel to Regeneration, the historical novel about shellshocked WWI soldiers being treated at a psychiatric hospital.

This was harder for me to get into at first than Regeneration, because the early section concentrates on Billy Prior, the bisexual soldier with class issues, now reassigned to domestic intelligence due to asthma. Prior is interesting but chilly, hard to like. He’s maintaining a girlfriend and having discreet encounters with men on the side; he’s working for an agency devoted to persecuting and jailing pacifists, deserters, and gay and lesbian people, when he’s bisexual himself and has pacifist friends. The first section, which is about Prior’s inner conflicts as embodied in various figures from his low-class past who are now unjustly jailed or on the run from the war he’s trying to return to, is well-done but, for me, more intellectually than emotionally engaging.

To my relief, the novel then returns to Rivers, the psychiatrist, who is once again treating both Prior and Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent back to England after being wounded again. It’s amazing from there out – suspenseful, and satisfying on every level. All the therapy scenes, and the way that people’s psychological secrets were unraveled, were beautifully done – clever but not reductionist.

There were a number of plot surprises, which I will put under a cut.

Read more... )

I highly recommend this novel. All else aside, it’s one of the best uses of a repeated motif – the eye – I’ve ever encountered. Warning for horrific wartime violence, and the aftermath of that violence.
People had recommended this book to me for years, saying that it depicted PTSD very well. Unfortunately, since no one elaborated that it was a historical novel about WWI, I mixed it up with a novel called Restoration, by Carol Berg, which I couldn't get more than a chapter into, and which involved slaves, demons, and emo winged dudes. I always assumed the PTSD must come later.

Regeneration is a historical novel about a psychiatric hospital treating shell-shocked WWI soldiers with the goal, ideally, of sending them back to the front. Dr. Rivers is a compassionate if rather distant psychiatrist with a deeply-held and well-reasoned belief that the war, though terrible, is necessary. But as he treats men and listens to their horrific stories, and sees the damage the war wrought on their bodies, minds, and souls, he begins to suffer from second-hand traumatization. And, more troubling to him, he begins to doubt.

The main story follows Rivers' therapy with Siegfried Sassoon, an intellectual kindred spirit whom Rivers is determined to bring round to the view that he must return to the front rather than get court-martialed for declaring that the war is wrong. But the omniscient POV also follows other patients and other doctors, and then the people they get involved with: their families, their girlfriends, townspeople and soldiers. As the effects of the war ripple outward, so does every small moment of human kindness and cruelty. The elegant, clear prose and understated tone conveys both the utter horror of the situations, and how those horrors become both unbearable and unremarkable.

Fantastic book - great writing, great characterization, historically interesting, very psychologically astute. It does depict PTSD very well, and also conversion disorders ("hysterical paralysis/blindness/etc,") which were much more common then than now.

There are two sequels. Has anyone read them?

Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy)


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