Thursday, November 5, 2009

50 Books For Our Time - Review #1

NB: This is "review one" because I chose the Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker. And I'm posting them one at a time because this sucker got long!

Also, it's a little stream-of-consciousness, so I don't know how much sense it makes. But these were the thoughts that struck me in reading the first book of the series, Regeneration.

So, a few months ago on, was talking about this list from Newsweek: which they called Fifty Books for Our Times.

And found herself hosting this: _ a reading challenge asking the question: are they 50 books for our times? Or are they titles that Newsweek just pulled out of a hat? (Okay, the last bit is mine.)

Books bloggers being ... books bloggers, we shouldered arms and took on those books, the challenge, and Newsweek.

I got the Regeneration trilogy, by Pat Barker, which is primarily about shell-shocked soldiers during World War I. I'm breaking the reviews down separately as I read the books, because this post is accidentally getting long.

Regeneration is short at about 250 pages, but it pack an emotional punch.

Here's the thing. We're pretty much out of World War I soldiers by now. They've gone into that good night; age has wearied and condemned them, and their stories are no longer memories, but tales passed down through families, or newspaper accounts, or novels like the Regeneration trilogy.

So yes, I believe that these books are for our times. In more than one way, too. Most of the figures in Regeneration - Wilfred Owen, Siegfired Sassoon, Rivers, are historical. They really lived through those awful times.

Owen, of course, is a celebrated war poet. Sassoon _ who wrote an incendiary statement saying he believed the war was being continued for profit _ is the protagonist of Regeneration. He comes to Craiglockheart _ the mental hospital that Rivers runs, to be "cured" of his supposed pacifism. Owens and Sassoon met at Craiglockheart, and apparently Sassoon had a profound influence on Owen's life and work.

Sasson didn't really see himself as a pacifist, but as someone with something important to say about the war. He also suffered from flashbacks and hallucinations _ what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.

So. That's one way Regeneration is a novel for our times. The other reason? Owens and Sassoon were gay. Deeply closeted, although their sexual orientation would have been enough to get them out of active service.

But in the light of the rather weak "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the US - and probably other _ military outfits, and the continuing debate _ and struggle _ on legalising gay marriage _ Regeneration is a novel that does still matter.

The sexuality of these characters is dealt with subtly rather than outright, but it's easy to pick up in context. And I think _ in terms of when the novel is set _ it's a good approach. These men would have struggled with this; and possibly even remained closeted for their whole lives.

And, of course, this is set only 17 years after the death of Oscar Wilde, something that does prey on the mind of Sassoon, who was friends with with Robert Ross, a close friend (and lover I think? can't remember _ of Wilde's.)

Regeneration still has relevance, as a lot of the issues raised _ young people going off to war, the emotional and physical consequences of those actions, sexuality, repression and every day struggles _ are all present.

There's a gorgeous, sad passage about halfway through the book that talks about the very young now being like the very old as they watch their friends die around them, which _ for me _ summed up the war experience.

Plus, it's a bloody good read, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.

So. Well done on this one Newsweek. You've hit the nail on the head. On to book two ...


Jodie said...

Did you already read 'Life Class' by the same author (I sort of think I remember reading about it here)? If you did, did you have a preference for Life Class, or Regeneration, or for the poet characters or the visual artists?

Maree said...

No, I haven't read Life Class. I have read Another World, though, which is fairly good too. I'll have to read Life Class so I can compare. Very thought-provoking - thank you! :)