Review: The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

1918, the closing months of the war. Army psychiatrist William Rivers is increasingly concerned for the men who have been in his care – particularly Billy Prior, who is about to return to combat in France with young poet Wilfred Owen. As Rivers tries to make sense of what, if anything, he has done to help these injured men, Prior and Owen await the final battles in a war that has decimated a generation.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

The third part of a trilogy, which began with Regeneration and continued with The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize. Given that certain writers’ associations would like to see fiction with a gay content put right back in the closet, it’s worth pointing out that both this book – and The Line of beauty – have won prestigious awards. Quality of story telling and writing should take precedence over other considerations.

As the reader moves through the trilogy, more and more is revealed about the four key characters – the fictional Billy Prior and the real life Rivers, Sassoon and Owen. These are complex men and neither they. Nor the story line, are easy to compartmentalise or even warm to at times. Not one of these three books is an easy to read, ‘formulaic’ piece of fiction

Certain themes run through the books. The interweaving of physical and psychological measures in healing features constantly, as does the nature of war and the appropriate response to it (is there a definitive one?)  The ghosts in the Ghost Road aren’t just the ones from the past that dictate the present. There are spirits manifesting themselves –Sassoon sees them, Rivers has encountered them in his past travels to Melanesia. Are they real? Are they a factor of shell shock or superstition? Pat Barker leaves it to the reader to decide.

Also, there’s a rumbling theme concerning the homoerotic nature of war – the closeness of men, both in terms of actual space and camaraderie, the attractions between them to be acted on or ignored as appropriate. In one memorable scene Prior’s thoughts flit between comparing Owen to a rent boy and wondering how he feels about killing:

He looks like one of the boys you see on street corners in the East End. Open to offers. I must say I wouldn’t mind…And I wonder if he sees those faces, grey, open-mouthed faces, life draining out of them before the bullets hit…

To outline the plot of this book is pointless – it’s more a jigsaw than a flowing stream. Inevitably, given that Prior ends up in the same unit as Owen, one can guess at the outcome – it’s not hard to put some sort of odds on (or against) the sort of happy ending that’s often demanded in romantic fiction. But this isn’t your usual romance, although it has romantic elements. It’s hard hitting fiction and none the less worthwhile for that.

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6 Responses

  1. Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy make up one of the greatest WWI historicals I’ve ever read. If I could be any living author it would be Pat Barker.

    As Charlie mentioned in the review, one of the characters is a young poet named Wilfred Owen. Since some of you might not know of Owen, I’d like to comment that Wilfred was a real soldier, killed in battle at the age of 25, one week before the war ended. I recommend that if you read Barker’s books, or anything about WWI (or any war, for that matter) that you read Owen’s war poems.

    It’s chilling to realize that they were written by someone who was living the horrors of war at the time he was writing and that he lost his life during the experience he was writing about. One of the most unforgettable describes a mustard gas attack. But they are all unforgettable.

    Barker’s books have won awards, justly deserved.

    • Ruth

      I’m entirely in agreement with all you say. Discovering this trilogy had been one of the ‘reading events’ of the past year, for me.

      And I’d made the huge assumption that people would know about Owen (he’s standard syllabus English and/or History for people over here and so is a fairly well known figure). His poems are, in a word, stunning.

      Many thanks

      Charlie

  2. Lovely review. This trilogy was absolutely one of the best things I ever read, on all levels – emotional, romantic, sociological, political, and for its superb craft and portrayal of both loyalty and betrayal, friendship and isolation. Loved it. Blubbed and laughed and cared. :)

    • Clare

      Hear hear. I’m in awe of Pat Barler’s ability to say so much in a few simple words. And yes, all those emotions coveyed without ever giving the feeling that the reader was being manipulated.

      Charlie

  3. When I first read Barker’s trilogy I was a member of another online group of writers. It wasn’t an LGBT group, but writers in general. I mentioned the trilogy and how great I thought it was. One of the men wrote me a rather angry personal e-mail denouncing Barker and her “undeserved awards” for books that were written “for the sole purpose of trying to make people think there were homosexuals in the army during WWI.”

    Barker had some nerve, eh?

    • Ruth

      *shakes head* Because there couldn’t have been homosexuals in the army, could there? And there was probably no point in arguing with your correspondent because if that’s his ‘head in the sand’ viewpoint – against a wealth of evidence to the contrary, not least Siegfried Sassoon himself – you’d never shift him.

      Charlie

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