Pat Barker was born in 1943 in Thornaby-on-Tees, England, where she was raised primarily by her grandparents. Barker's grandfather was an important influence on her. As a young man, he had fought in World War I; toward the end of his life, he became increasingly haunted by his war experience. Pat's grandfather had been bayoneted during the war, and Pat would see his scars when he went to the sink to wash. His experiences in the war made influenced Barker's understanding of the period, making the effect of the war more immediate and personal.
As a young woman, Barker studied international history at the London School of Economics. She then went on to teach history and politics at other educational institutions. At age twenty-six, after the birth of her two children, Barker began to write fiction. Her initial attempts were poorly received by publishers. Later, a writing class, tutored by the English novelist and short-story writer Angela Carter, encouraged Barker to remain persistent in her fiction.
Barker's first novel was Union Street (1982), followed by Blow Your House Down (1984), which was later adapted for the stage. Other early novels included The Century's Daughter (1986) and The Man Who Wasn't There (1989). These early works focused on the lives of working-class English women, leading some critics to label Barker a feminist writer.
Barker is most famous for her later work, especially her Great War trilogy consisting of Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Road (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995). This trilogy allowed Barker to expand her thematic range and refine her excellent writing skills. Regeneration received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and won numerous awards, including the short list for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize and a recommendation from the New York Times Book Review as one of the four best novels of the year.
Regeneration, Barker's first entry in the Great War trilogy, is a work of historical fiction focusing on Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland in 1917. Though Barker traces her interest in World War I back to her early childhood, she attributes the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist, who was familiar with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers's experiments on nerve regeneration in the early twentieth century.
At least three of the novel's characters are based on real individuals who knew each other while they were at Craiglockhart. Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier and famous poet, protested the war in 1917, and for this, he was sent to the mental hospital. Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most famous war poet of his era, was also at Craiglockhart, and was greatly influenced by his older and more experienced fellow patient, Sassoon. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a scientist known originally for anthropological studies, served as a psychiatrist at the hospital for a short period near the end of the war; nevertheless, his influence on Sassoon was substantial. Sassoon mentioned or referred to Rivers in several publications after his "treatment." Although Barker bases her characters on real individuals, her work is a fictional account of the period they spent together at Craiglockhart.
Regeneration is a morally nuanced anti-war novel, reflecting the issues and the concerns in wartime Britain. By focusing on the experience of Rivers, the psychiatrist who attends his patients, Barker heightens the conflict between duty and sympathy. Principles become blurred as similar experiences are viewed through different lenses. Barker, with her insightful and direct writing style, succeeds in presenting a microcosm of "madness" in society. Yet the novel refrains from drawing conclusions for us. Ultimately, Regeneration asks us to question for ourselves the large concepts of duty, sanity, and sympathy.