Context: Read this while we visited our friends’ lovely house in Newcastle.
I’ve had this on my shelf for a very long time and imminent emigration to Papua New Guinea brought it rapidly to the front of my to be read list as my books headed into storage, to friends or to the guy who buys books off me on Cambridge market. Very glad to finally get into this trilogy which I first saw on the shelf of a friend of mine In Seoul back in 2006… the same friend that inspired me to get
back into novels.
This novel focusses not on the First World War battlefields that we’re so often reminded of but on the effects of those battlefields on the minds of their victims. Dr Rivers, the main character of the book, pioneered our understanding of what is now apparently called combat stress reaction but was then known as nothing at all. We more commonly call it shell-shock. The novel is moving, intricate and written with a great deal of insight into the human condition than many I’ve read for a while.
As Rivers engages with each of his patients you begin to learn more about not only the condition but Rivers himself, a remarkable man in many ways. You learn also about the way that British culture at the time responded to these victims of the war who, to all intents and purposes, were perfectly unharmed and yet completely disabled. You encounter men who cannot speak, who cannot see, who cannot walk – all psychosomatic victims of trauma. Rivers’ way of unlocking the cages these men are in is intriguing and reveals a man of great empathy and tireless compassion.
I thought the novel was remarkable on many levels. The characters are, for the most part, real people – Rivers, Sassoon, Owen prominent among them. But the way she brings them to life, investing dry and dusty research on these figures with a real colour and power is worthy of praise. In addition, there are very well-constructed fictional characters in there as well, notably Billy Prior who figures prominently in the next two books of the trilogy. The fact that you are at no point aware of any division between fact and fiction speaks volumes for Barker’s skill in this regard. In addition, I thought the subject matter and her portrayal of the home front of WW1 was rare.
I found the novel to be really well-crafted. I loved the way that paragraphs lent themselves to be re-read for more reflection on exactly what was being described. Unfortunately, I read this on the road so didn’t have time to mark any passages for you here. I suggest instead that you get yourself a copy of the whole trilogy if possible and dive on in.