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My interest – indeed, my passion – for the #GreatWar started with Jeremy Paxton’s Great Britain’s Great War (2014), after which Testament of Youth made me cry and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress (second and third volumes of Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography) restored some balance. My fate was finally sealed To Fight alongside Friends: The First World War Diaries of Charlie May (edited by Gerry Harrison, 2014). I then tried Birdsong, hated it – and moved swiftly onto Pat Barker’s Regeneration (the first of her famous trilogy, published in 1991). Fellow writers will recognise the dread provoked by that bit in agent submission letters requiring one to suggest authors with whom one would align ones work – and doubtlessly be equally aware of advice not to put Dickens or Tolkien. I’m not sure if I have the nerve to write Pat Barker – even though her name is as synonymous with #WW1 as trenches and Tipperary – but I really want to because when I read Regeneration I had two thoughts: “I want to write a book like this” followed by “I think I could write like this – in 30 years’ time”. Three gifts for the writer/reader: (1) Sparseness of tone and earthiness of subject matter. (Barker hated any hint of “sensitive lady novelist” – but then don’t we all?) (2) A complex anti-hero in the character of Billy Prior (invented by Barker to counterbalance the upper-class beauty of Sassoon and the middle-class innocence of Owen); a pretty distasteful chap all round, but nevertheless one guns for him, which is no mean achievement and worthy of study. (3) Consolation. Regeneration isn’t perfect. There’s an odd scene of Sarah and her mum and another with her chums which really don’t add anything to the plot. (One imagines Barker’s editor: “I say, Pat – can I call you Pat? – I say, we really need a female voice here, not much, bit of chit-chat over tea or shell cases or whatever.”) And a few facts do land with a bit of a look-at-my-research clunk in the narrative – but maybe that’s just the picky prism of the intervening 27 years daring to post-judge a book that really did break the mould of #historicalfiction #amwriting
Hannah Hulme Hunter
Writer of literary historical fiction set in the Great War (First World War). Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.