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by Pat Barker

Pub Date: April 8th, 1992
ISBN: 0-525-93427-8
Publisher: Dutton

 In this fact/fiction hybrid, Barker (Union Street, 1983, etc.) turns from the struggle for survival of northern England working- class folk to the struggle back to sanity by British officers unhinged by WW I trench warfare. Craiglockhart War Hospital, a grim psychiatric facility outside Edinburgh, is the setting. The framework is the arrival of Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart in the summer of 1917, and his discharge back to France in November. Sassoon is treated by the eminent neurologist (and Army captain) William Rivers, whose job is to restore his damaged warriors to fighting condition. Sassoon is a relatively easy assignment. Despite his public statement protesting the war, Sassoon is no pacifist; this complex poet feels at home in the Army and is an exceptionally courageous officer, beloved by his men, to whom he feels a blood-debt that can be paid only by his return. For all the sparring between Sassoon and Rivers, only a hair separates them, for the latter is also a man of enormous integrity, profoundly troubled by the horrors his patients must endure. And it is these horrors (not the clipped exchanges of Sassoon and Rivers) that linger in the mind: Burns's vomiting nightmares caused by a mouthful of decomposing German flesh; Prior's being rendered mute after handling a human eye. At the center is Rivers, a model therapist, whose unstinting support may give even the wretched Burns a chance at a normal life. Barker has also provided some workmanlike off-base romance for Prior, her one developed fictional character; but the heart of the work, where the big fish swim, is Rivers's consciousness, his insights into front- line behavior enriched by his anthropological straining. Don't look here for the dramatic sweep of a war novel; instead, you get a scrupulously fair reconstruction of Craiglockhart, plus a moving empathy for both doctors and patients. The extent of that empathy earns Barker's work a place on the shelf of WW I literature.