The unusual thing about British novelist Pat Barker’s new book is that it manages to convey the horror of trench warfare during World War I without ever taking the reader to the battlefields in France. All the descriptions of shellings, futile charges into machine-gun fire, and piles of mutilated corpses are conveyed through the memories of hospitalized British officers who were unable to force themselves to go on. They suffer from nightmares, hysterical blindness, muscular paralysis, loss of speech, and other afflictions. These shattered men are seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Dr. William Rivers, who is one of several historical personages to appear in this work of fiction.
Another character who was a real person is the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who caused a public uproar in July of 1917 by publishing a short article titled “A Soldier’s Declaration,” which began with the words: “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
Sassoon’s case became a cause celebre because a great deal of antiwar sentiment had been aroused in Great Britain by the horrific casualties in the stalemated trench warfare in France. The military authorities did not want to court-martial Sassoon, who was an aristocrat as well as a war hero; instead, they sent him to Rivers as “mentally unsound.” The loosely...
(The entire section is 471 words.)