In 1917, the poet Siegfried Sassoon protests the war in a London newspaper. He is saved from court martial by a military friend who argues successfully for his transfer to the Craiglockhart War Hospital where he comes under the care of psychiatrist, William Rivers. Sassoon is not sick, but he and his doctor both know that the line between sanity and insanity is blurred, especially for a homosexual and in a time of war.

The other patients, however, are gravely wounded in spirit if not body; sometimes they are tormented by uncomprehending parents and wives. Rivers’ efforts to unravel their nightmares, revulsions, mutism, stammering, paralysis, and anorexia begin to shake his own psychic strength and lead him to doubt the rationality--if not the possibility--of restoring them to service. He yearns for his pre-war research in nerve regeneration, the quixotic enterprise that serves as a metaphor for his clinical work.


An eloquent statement against the madness of war, this novel is the first in a trilogy, which includes The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road (see annotation), awarded the Booker prize in 1995. The story is closely based on the publications and annotated literary papers of three men who actually met at Craiglockhart in 1917: psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers (1864-1922) and the poets Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) (see this database).

Barker probes the tenacious role of class within the military hierarchy, while the society, which it defends, is rapidly transformed by the converging lives of domestic servants and aristocrats. Her descriptions are powerful: the yellow skin of women who work in the munitions factory; the surgeon who can no longer bear the sight of blood; the young soldier who cannot eat because his nose and mouth had once been filled with rotting flesh when he was hoisted by a grenade into the decomposing belly of a dead German. Rivers helps the men to recall and to understand the origins of their ailments by gentle, patient conversation--a treatment that he described in Lancet, 2Feb 1918.



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