I am so fascinated by World War I. I’m not sure entirely why (other than Rilla of Ingleside) but I love the stories that come out of those four years. The stories, the poems, the personalities….I don’t know as much, or care as much about the military strategy of it, but I am fascinated by the people involved. So this trilogy, revolving around Dr Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, is kind of perfect for me.
Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, I read during my MA. And I devoured it. I loved the style, I loved the people, I felt deeply for each of the patients and the other characters. It made me want to reread everything of Siegfried Sassoon’s that I could find, to read more about Robert Graves, to study Wilfred Owen. At a distance of a year-plus, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember the love.
The Eye in the Door, the second book, is a bit grimmer. I am not sure if ‘grimmer’ is the right word, when the first book is set in a mental hospital, but emotionally, there is less hope in The Eye in the Door. Billy Prior, one of the patients from Craiglockhart, is starting to dissociate, and the disillusionment that is so prevalent in the “war poets” and post-war writing is stronger in this book than in either of the others. Betrayal is an important theme. Memory is an important element – both the loss of memory associated with shell-shock and dissociation, and the juxtaposition of pre-war memory and current events. It’s possible that one reason that I didn’t like this one quite as much as the other two is because it forced Billy’s pre-war memories into the story, in an attempt to preach about the horrors of the home front. And there were horrors on the home front, as there are anywhere that has been affected by war.
The Ghost Road, on the other hand, I loved. It starts with an epigraph from an Edward Thomas poem – Edward Thomas is a ‘war poet’ that I wasn’t familiar with before, but I’m going to investigate him further; apparently he was a friend of Robert Frost, and may have been the impetus for ‘The Road Less Travelled’. And the book integrates more of Rivers into the story, which is something that I found slightly missing from The Eye in the Door. The memories – Rivers’s, this time – fit better with the story; they provided insights and metaphorical connections instead of flat background.
The Ghost Road also has one of the few passages I’ve ever wanted to actually mark in a book. It’s kind of an obvious thing, but coming from Billy Prior, and in the context that it does, it really makes an impact. Billy’s writing a diary, in a way to keep track of his sanity and that of the other soldiers in France, and he comments on the prevalence of writing in the huts: letters, diaries, poems. And then he says,
Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe.
He recognizes the irony, of course – that in war no one is ever safe. And the reader does too – anyone who knows about Wilfred Owen, a prominent figure in this book and one of Billy Prior’s fellow soldiers, knows that he died in battle on Armistice Day. Many of the ‘war poets’ didn’t make it home. Turning yourself into a first-person narrator is not going to give you a magic shield against bullets or gas. But the need is still there. This is one of the reasons that we tell stories; we are trying to keep our own stories going as long as possible, to make some kind of a mark on the world so that people will want to keep knowing about us, to keep ourselves from fading from sight even before death.
This trilogy is, in one way, kind of like a Ron Howard movie. It’s based on true events – many of the characters are real people – so you know what’s going to happen, for the most part. But you can’t stop reading, you can’t stop hoping that it will happen differently this time. They wouldn’t really kill off characters that are so important in the story, would they? They wouldn’t really be sent into battle in such horrible conditions? Or, even more chillingly, they wouldn’t really let a guy with half his face blown off live that long, would they? But they do, in every case.
(I also will say that one thing that I liked about The Ghost Road was the presence of Henry Head. I found him fascinating during Casualty 1909, where they actually show the beginnings of his nerve regeneration self-experiment, which they bring up in this book, and I like that connection between one thing I love (this trilogy) and another (Casualty 1900s).)
I whipped through the final two books of this trilogy in, essentially, one afternoon/evening. I find the period so captivating, and the characters so captivating, that now all I want to do is read more WWI-set literature. Maybe I’ll do Birdsong next, and mark that off my list too….