Each war produces its own literature, and World War I gave us an extraordinary amount of fine writing by the poets and writers who fought in its trenches. The ”war to end all wars” has continued to inspire good novels, from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) to Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985). Now one more memorable book can be added to that list. Its author is a woman.
, Pat Barker’s previous novels have dealt with the lives of working-class women in the north of England. Of these the best known is Union Street, upon which the movie Stanley and Iris was very loosely based. One might be forgiven for assuming that Barker would continue to be a modern-day Mrs. Gaskell, eager to include an articulate plea for social change in her carefully told stories. It is a respectable niche to fill and all the more admirable then that she has chosen instead a subject that involves not only a change in time and place but a different voice.
When the First World War ended in November 1918, some 8.5 million young men had been killed, more than 900,000 of them English soldiers. Barker has centered her book on the war experience of an actual person, Siegfried Sassoon. In July of 1917 Sassoon, a young English officer and arguably the most important war poet of his generation, renounced his commission and issued a declaration in which he condemned the continuance of the war, holding that the objectives for which it had been fought had already been achieved and that the war could speedily be brought to a close through negotiation. Since Sassoon was a hero and had been awarded the Military Cross for bravery, his courage was not in question. The military authorities, who found it unpolitic to court-martial him, diagnosed shell shock and sent him to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital for officers close to Edinburgh.
In this extremely accomplished and intelligent novel, Barker describes the relationship between Sassoon — rich, upper-class, half-Jewish, handsome, and homosexual — and Dr. W.H. Rivers, the social anthropologist and neurologist turned, for the duration of the war, psychiatrist at Craiglockhart. Despite the grimness of its subject matter — the death, mutilation, and traumatizing of a generation of British youth — the novel is never depressing. In part this is because Barker refuses to manipulate her reader’s emotions, but it is also because Rivers’ reflections on shell shock and other forms of breakdown are so enlightening: In his view, ”it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to…Any explanation of war neurosis must account for the fact that this apparently masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.”
As in her previous books, Barker is adept at dramatizing moral dilemmas that have no easy answers. Sassoon must either return to France, be court- martialed, or certified mentally unstable. Rivers, a compassionate man and talented healer, knows that the young men he cures will be returned to the trenches: Life expectancy for a British officer was, at that stage of the war, three months. A