on August 16, 1999
Although "Regeneration" is my favorite of Pat Barker's World War I trilogy, I thought "The Ghost Road" was a brilliant and tragic ending. The novel takes us to the final days of World War I, where we witness the tragic fate of Billy Prior, the working-class anti-hero of the trilogy. Interspersed with his experiences in France we also join the psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers. Rivers deals with his unpleasant duty of preparing men to return to battle as he remembers his anthropological work in the Melanesian islands, amongst the members of a culture that was slowly dying out.
Barker's restrained style is extremely moving -- far more so than the florid prose of Sebastian Faulks' World War I novel "Birdsong." Every time I've read this novel, I've been moved to tears.
P.S. The reader from South Africa who was so incensed at Ms. Barker's "factual inaccuracies" might want to check again: There were indeed air raids over England in World War I -- they were carried out by the infamous Zeppelins! Also, Dr. Rivers was living amongst the head-hunters of Melanesia in the Pacific (probably Borneo or thereabouts) NOT Africa.
on November 25, 2003
THE GHOST ROAD is the final volume of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and the winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. Throughout the trilogy Barker performs a phenomenal job of detailing the psychological consequences of trench warfare during the Great War. Set in London and France, THE GHOST ROAD focuses on the principle characters of Billy Prior and the renowned Dr. Rivers and their personal relationships with each other and the First World War. The reader is provided a glimpse into the terrible conditions of trench fighting, and how the medical establishment viewed shell-shock as a medical diagnosis and how it was treated. Through the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, etc, the world can begin to understand the personal horrors they have witnessed of a war that many did not understand. Based loosely on historical events and characters, Barker has created a perspective of modern warfare that does not contain the quintessential happy ending.
I believe each volume of the Regeneration Trilogy should be read in chronological order (REGENERATION, THE EYE IN THE DOOR, AND THE GHOST ROAD) to fully appreciate the merits of each volume. Although the plot is re-summarized at the beginning of each book, the main characters are continually being developed throughout. I just finished reading GHOST ROAD, and I have to admit that it's not my favorite of the three. I don't understand how this volume was awarded the Booker Prize when I believe REGENERATION is the strongest of the bunch. I also enjoyed THE EYE IN THE DOOR because of the exploration of societal issues during The First War, especially scape-goating of homosexuals and pacifists.
Overall, this trilogy is a wonderful glimpse into the atmosphere of Britain during the First World War.
I reviewed REGENERATION, the first volume in Pat Barker's WW1 trilogy, when I first read it and liked it. I did not submit a review of the second volume, THE EYE IN THE DOOR, because it did not seem to sustain the promise (or answer the questions) of the first, and I felt it necessary to see how this third volume would pull the threads together. My verdict: while THE GHOST ROAD is certainly a more focused book than its predecessor, it still does not quite sew the trilogy into a coherent whole.
Barker's method is to take a huge subject that has been much written about, the first World War, and to examine it from unusual angles. Almost all the first two books and the first two-thirds of this one take place in Britain rather than in France. They do not show the war itself, but its effects on the damaged minds of soldiers who return from it, and on social attitudes at home. The brilliance of the first volume was to take two real people -- the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the pioneering psychiatrist William Rivers -- and trace their interaction at Craiglockhart mental hospital, where Sassoon has been sent after publishing a denunciaton of the war. I doubt that Barker had a trilogy in mind when she wrote the first book, and it might have been difficult to have extended it further in the same vein. THE EYE IN THE DOOR suffers from having too many characters; there is a bit of Sassoon, a bit of Rivers, and a bewildering array of new people, but the main character is a relatively minor figure from the first book, Billy Prior. The main subject of the story is the strongly prejudiced reactionism in wartime Britain, taking as its targets pacifists, socialists, and homosexuals. It is a hard book to follow, and it rather loses its way.
THE GHOST ROAD more or less gets back on track, by giving more of the book to Rivers, by building Prior into a richer and more sympathetic character, and finally moving the action into the trenches for the last chapters. But the focus on war poets which gave such character to the first book has all but vanished in this one. Sassoon barely appears. Wilfred Owen, who figured as a secondary character in the first book, returns here and dies (as he did) in the last days of the war, but he is treated so peripherally that it is hard to see why the author cites no less than six books on him in her concluding bibliography.
This change of direction is a pity, because Barker is much more successful finding the humanity in her real characters than she is inventing others out of whole cloth. She seems to want to use Billy Prior, for example, in protean fashion, to represent whatever she needs at any given moment: a homosexual and yet a lover of women; an officer and gentleman who nonetheless comes from a working-class background; a soldier turned civil servant turned soldier again. The lack of focus in Prior's own life risks the narrative focus of the last two books; his decision to return to France comes as a relief, because it simplifies everything.
The psychiartist Rivers has always been an attractive and complex character, I think because his complexity is real and not made up. In this volume, Barker fills him out by delving into his past: his relationship with Lewis Carrol as a child, and his anthropological work in the South Seas at the start of the century. Both are interesting, but their relationship to the overall direction of the trilogy is less clear. Others have commented on the parallels between the Melanesian culture and the situation in the trenches, but I do not find it especially cogent. However, it certainly makes an unusual angle on the war, and the ability to find unusual angles has been Pat Barker's greatest success from beginning to end.
on November 26, 2002
First, a comment on the review from the "Top 50 Reviewer" from NH: I find his(her?) entire review willfully odd in many regards, not the least of which is the claim that to read the historian John Keegan is to discover that the war was well conducted.
But I digress... The point of the novel, indeed the trilogy, seems to me to be betrayal. Whatever else he is, Billy Prior seems to have been betrayed, to varying degress, by most of those whom he has encounterd: father, mother, priest, military superiors, Empire, and, most probably but at least humanely, Rivers himself. In the final tally, there seems to be little difference between governments prosecuting the war to its last gasp ("And then the next day in 'John Bull' there's Bottomley saying, No, no, no and once again no. We must fight to the bitter end.")---and the headhunting Melanesians. To the (possible) credit of the Melanesians, they at least understand that they are unreconstructed headhunters.
The manipulative, sexually voracious, and profoundly self-aware Billy Prior is an unforgettable fictional creation. (And, yes, the homosexual scenes distressed me and made me queasy.) And yet, there he is, in all his fictional power and extremely sloppy humanity: neither pauper nor prince, neither straight nor gay, neither hero nor coward, neither fully sincere nor totally duplicitous, neither pacificist nor Johnny Bull, neither sane nor insane, both the hunter and the hunted. In his multiplicity he becomes Everysoldier. And the power of Pat Barker's prose is to make the reader care profoundly about Billy Prior's fate, consigned, as we all knew that he would be, to the "ghost road" of the title.
One of John Keegan's major points, by the way, has been that by World War I, technology had brought to mankind the means of destruction on a massive scale without the ability to adequately control it: thus misguided artillery barrages, poison gas blowback, constant breakdown of telephone wires affecting command and control. The inabilty to communicate effectively helped to trigger, then to prolong the conflict, and contributed to the death of millions. As the mortally wounded Hallet keeps intoning and only Rivers is able to translate into comprehensible language, "Shotvarfet"---"It's not worth it." Indeed.
This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
"The Ghost Road" ends the 3-book cycle written by Pat Barker of her study of World War I, the men who were part of history in the form of Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, and some fictional like William Prior. This also marks the book that added The Booker Prize to her list of achievements. This work differs from the first 2 as a good portion consists of the flashbacks of Dr. Rivers. These are experienced while he is suffering from Influenza, and the fever induced memories the illness recalls.
No one comment can summarize his experiences as an Anthropologist living among a tribe that he studied, but the one I mention above does justice, if incomplete. This is an anti war trilogy of books, so to find one of the main players reliving his past while tortured by his present, witnessing his society's destruction by war, as another was destroyed from the lack of it, is interesting counterpoint to say the least.
Like the second volume, Billy Prior lays a prominent role in this final installment as well. He remains an interesting character, but his obsessions, which at time are in conflict, became a bit tiresome. His personal life that once offered a continually more complex and disturbed man began to be repetitive.
Ms. Barker brings her work to a close as late as the 3rd of November in Prior's journal, and implies some of what is read is even later. By resolving some lives, and leaving others to continue to deal with the madness they will never escape, and doing this in the last week of the war, is acutely cruel. It is also appropriate as when the fighting ended on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11 in the morning, the weapons may have stopped, but the damage had only begun.
The War did not end for those who survived, and a second war was to appear in the lifetime of many of those we met. And perhaps that was one of the points she wished to make, nothing was accomplished, millions died, countless numbers who lived were permanently damaged. And the final Treaty Of Versailles ensured it would all happen once again.
Dr. Rivers helped men only to send them back to the cause of their terror. Other soldiers returned to the front to meet what fate had to offer. But futility was the result, for what did Dr. Rivers have to show that he was productive, that he as a Doctor had healed? And how did the patients that were in his charge benefit from his care and the decisions that followed from it.
A tremendous piece of writing.
on November 21, 1999
Whilst it took me a while to get into, it was well worth the perseverence. Barker goes deep into the human psyche and into the grim reality of war and ritual violence. The very complex characters of Prior and Rivers are so excellantly developed you dont want it to end as it races towards its conclusion. More satisfying than "The eye in the door". A classic!.
on February 2, 2000
Recalling the books of Lost Generation enriched with psychoanalytic experience and author's brilliant style, Ms Pat Barker's sad story takes all your attention from the first pages. Two main lines of the novel's plot tell us about Lt Billy Prior, who returns to the Field Forces in France in the last months of the WWI, and Dr William Rivers, whose memory revives the days of his life amidst the head-hunters of Melanesia. So we have two different rungs of the social ladder of human civilization - Europe as the upper edge and Melanesia as the bottom one. Former head-hunters, whose cruel practice was strictly proscribed by 'civilized white men', can restrain their passions (though coveting for past bloody raids) and even have reverent attitide towards human death and complicated rituals of interment. Intertwining episodes of both main lines Ms Barker delineates a hideous picture of insensate and endless ('Nobody's in control. Nobody knows how to stop.') human abattoir of the last battles of the war in Europe where 'civilized white men' destroy themselves in madness unknown for the Melanesian barbarians. Yet the heroes of the novel do not know that this war is only the World War I: the Ghost Road of human civilization...
on March 19, 1998
For the first 100 pages I wondered why I was spending time on this book but then it began to come together.
Pat Barker, a women, captures the horror of trench warfare with descriptions as: "I got something damp on my face that wasn't mud, and brushing it away found a glob of Hollet's brain between my fingertips." and even poetically "...eyes still open, limbs not yet decently arrange...The sun has risen. The first shaft strikes the water and creeps towards them along the bank, discovering here the back of a hand, there the side of a neck, ending the rosy glow to skin from which the blood has fled, and then, finding nothing here that can respond to it, the shaft of light passes over them and begins to probe the distant fields."
A soldier expresses: "The war isn't being fought for...(the benefit of anyone). Nobody benefits. Nobody's in control. Nobody knows how to stop."
And yet in spite of this horror and hopelessness, Lt. Billy Prior says, "What an utter bloody fool I would have been not to have come back." This irrational belief may be understood from statements made by other soldiers, such as: "...far from having fled from the scene, he had behaved with exemplary courage and loyalty..." and "He might even have missed the war altogether, perhaps spent the rest of his life goaded by the irrational shame of having escaped."
Several sections should be read aloud to appreciate their power.
on June 25, 2009
The Ghost Road is an interesting book that intersperses the sacred (Melanesian death rites) with the profane (graphic depictions of risky sexual behavior) in an attempt to reconcile man's actions with the inevitability of death. The story itself is a split narrative: the psychoanalyst William Rivers treats men returning from the front during World War I and officer Billy Prior details his military and sexual actions leading up to his final battle in France. Rivers' narrative is further split between his real-time attendance to the War's casualties and his Melanesian experiences ten years' prior (related as an involuntary dream, similar to the symptoms he treats in others).
Each narrative uses differing perceptions of death as its central theme. Although initially treated as foreign and backwards, the primitive Islanders' perceptions finally appear the more civilized of the two and their culture of acceptance stands in stark relief to the voluntary cheapening of Prior's life while he waits for what he feels is a useless but inevitable death on the Western Front. As such, the final passages in the book are far more uplifting than other WWI narratives such as All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory.
"The Ghost Road" is set in the closing months of WW1 and alternates between a traumatised soldier, Billy Prior, and his physician WHR Rivers. Rivers' treatment of Prior's physical and mental wounds leaves him more or less sane but determined to return to the Front while Rivers continues his work, helping physically and mentally damaged men overcome their problems.
The book's focus on trauma and it's effects has never been done so well as in this book. Barker's presentation of soldiers who have seen hell on earth never once diminishes what they've gone through or who they are afterwards, they each retain honour in their fragile states. One line towards the end sums up the mindset of a traumatised soldier: "Loos, she said. I remember standing by the bar and thinking that words didn't mean anything anymore. Patriotism honour courage vomit vomit vomit. Only the names meant anything. Mons, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Verdun, Ypres." (p.257).
Barker's characterisation of Prior and Rivers is brilliant. Each man is flawed and heroic in their own ways. Prior's bedroom antics, especially the last encounter he has at the end, might make him seem almost sociopathic but this is juxtaposed with the way he looks after the men he's in charge of, as well as his decision to return to the Front despite being given the chance to avoid it. Rivers is the kind and understanding doctor who, through flashbacks to an earlier life in the Solomon Islands, is also shown as flawed in his own ways via the journey he took to become the great man he was.
Lewis Carroll, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon all play minor parts and are brought to life fantastically well. I've studied Carroll's life and felt Barker's depiction of him, while perhaps not as flattering as some fans of his would like, was compelling and showed him as a human being like the rest of us.
This is one of the few Booker Prize winning books I think really deserved it. Pat Barker's written an incredible story of bravery and heroism at home and abroad during WW1 with fascinating and memorable characters. The writing is top notch throughout with so many evocative lines that never becomes cloyingly sentimental. This is one of the most powerful: "Then they were moving forward, hundreds of men eerily quiet, starlit shadows barely darkening the grass. And no dogs barked." (p.261).
A must read.