"The Ghost Road" is a war novel written by Pat Barker that won an award, the Booker Prize in 1995. It is the third installment of a trilogy that follows the lives of British shell shocked officers during the closing days of the war. The books preceding this one are, Regeneration and The Eye In the Door
In the first novel, Regeneration, a major character known as Siegfried Sassoon is summarily relegated to a minor role where the major characters are working class officer Billy Prior and in stunning contrast a real life character, William Rivers, written seamlessly into the story. In both real life and the novel, Rivers is a psychoanalyst. In this regard, Barker is studying the relationship that can occur between the real character and a fictional one.
Shell shock was a malady that was previously thought to be no different than cowardice and incapacitation in order to avoid fighting. Shell shock was a term that was a new name for hysteria, whose symptoms were similar when they occurred to women. These symptoms included the loss of speech, the loss of memory, and loss of the use of the arms or the legs with no physical injury whatsoever. These symptoms were studied and eventually understood by the apparent hero of the trilogy, Dr. Rivers. They were expressed in primarily non-Freudian terms, in the psychology of the Great War combat. Rivers can deduce that the Great War has promised much manly activity such as wanton slaughter of enemy troops but has instead brought about feminine passivity such as merely waiting for orders. This level of passivity is so high that according to Rivers is more than the soldiers’ mothers or sisters have scarcely known and is because of their illness (Barker, 2013). It is, therefore, his duty to study and assist the soldiers in their pursuit of sanity so that they can be sent back onto the battlefield.
The cure for this illness, however, presented itself during the war’s closing days when the men were finally vaulting out of the trenches and on to battle. There is also another side to this novel that shows that women were also suffering and that the cure was not the war’s end but rather the war itself (Waterman, 2009). While he is still at home, Billy Prior notices that the women seem to be happier since they are walking with more purpose than before wherever they are going. Whether it is to work or to the pub, they seem to be younger even. Prior’s girlfriend and fiancé earns decent money for the first time in her life by working at the munitions factory making detonators. The intensity of the love that Prior feels towards her is such that it brings a shock that is akin to physical joy to an otherwise angry middle class young man. Conversely, he also finds joy in the destruction and ruin of the bourgeois houses. This is a bit of confusion as he cannot help but appreciate their beauty but is sees also another form of beauty at their ruin (Monteith, Jolly, Yousaf, 2005).
The Ghost Road kicks off when Prior has been on the receiving end of Dr. Rivers’ cures and is preparing to go back to the war front in France. It is during the autumn of 1918 and in the closing days of the war, a spasmic battle of little consequence breaks out and in the ensuing chaos that occurs just in the days leading to the armistice, Prior and another soldier known as Owen are killed in.
Dr. Rivers, on the other hand, continues to take care of his patients while looking after his invalid sister and reminiscing about the anthropological trip he took to Melanesia where the local medicine man took him on a tour of their most sacred places. He also entertains thoughts that are contrary to his British nature. He also remembers the demonstration on the power of symbolic healing while in Melanesia and uses methods similar to theirs in the healing of a soldier who had psychological paralysis. The soldier unfortunately kills himself (Strongman, 2002).
As the book progresses, Barkers simple style shows its profundity when she uses it to describe the physicality of the sex Prior was having. Both discriminate and indiscriminate. Discriminate was in Sarah’s mother’s house where the level of awkwardness is more than both wanted. Indiscriminate is the unceremonious coitus he has with members of both sexes. It shows that Prior is bisexual in his sexual orientation. There is an undercurrent of abuse while in his youth by a priest.
Prior and some of his brother officers arrive in France to discover that there is nowhere that they are needed. In consequence, they set up in a small villa previously occupied by a member of the bourgeois class. It is in September where the villa has a small pond where one of the officers enjoys relaxing in during day and night (Brannigan, 2005). Prior’s story is told through diary entries. As one of his brother officers remark at the lull in combat and questions if they have been forgotten, it begins a ticking clock of sorts in Prior’s diary. Rivers, on the other hand, is busy recollecting his memories and comparing Melanesia and France and compares the barbarity of their blood sacrifices with the current affairs of Europe.
As the “clock” of Prior’s diary counts down towards the end where the author, Barker permits him to have one of a dubious consolation of one of the most dubious acts recorded in the novel. He has sex with a 16-year-old boy. The boy is in charge of the pigs in the town and apparently, it is not his first time. However, this is hardly new to Prior. Upon his entry into France, He forsakes his rule about paying for sex and indulges himself in indiscriminate sex with prostitutes of both genders. This is even more shocking because he seems to be more at ease with hookers than he is with his own fiancée (Gupta, Johnson, 2005).
The novel ends with a number of deaths. Owen’s and Prior’s at the hands of the Vickers machine guns arrayed by the Germans. Hallete, the officer who used to lounge in the pond, his death came about by a bullet he took to the head, which damaged his ability to speak. He was, however, able to use meaningless sounds to convey the message,” it is not worth it” before he died. He repeated this garbled message repeatedly for the sake of his family. The other patients, however, could understand him easily. Rivers on the other hand merely stopped his sexual contemplation of Njiru, the medicine man of Melanesia (Barker, 2013).
Barker, P. (2013). The Ghost Road. New York. Penguin Group.
Monteith, S., Jolly, M., & Yousaf, N. (2005). Critical perspectives on Pat Barker. Columbia (S.C.: University of South Carolina press.
Brannigan, J. (2005). Pat Barker. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.
Knutsen, K. P. (2010). Reciprocal haunting: Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Münster: Waxmann.
Strongman, L. (2002). The Booker Prize and the legacy of empire. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Gupta, S Johnson, D. (2005). A Twentieth-century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates. Book 3 of Twentieth-century literature: texts and debates; Open University course A300 / written and produced by The Open University. New York. Psychology Press.
Waterman, D. F. (2009). Pat Barker and the mediation of social reality. Amherst, Cambria Press.
Novels by pat barker. (2010). S.l.: General Books