The Ghost Road
by Pat Barker (1995)
Plume (1996)
288 pp

Two Best of the Booker shortlist reviews, two disclaimers: Unfortunately, in my zeal to finish the Best of the Booker shortlist before the winner was announced, I didn’t read the first two books in this trilogy, Regeneration (1991) and The Eye in the Door (1993). I am sure that has an effect on my opinion of this book. But, and I know I’m not the only one with this view, I think if a book is going to be named the best of anything it should stand alone. It shouldn’t win on the strength of previous books. I know, I know — I’m such an idealist.

But don’t think you already know I’m giving this book a bad review just because of my disclaimer (then again, I wonder when I would write a disclaimer before a good review). Truth is I had a strange experience with Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995). Up to the last page, the last word, I was happy while reading it. In fact, I didn’t really want it to end I was so engaged. But within moments of finishing, it all changed for me. I’m still trying to understand why.

The Ghost Road takes place towards the end of World War I, a fascinating time period both historically and culturally. Barker puts a lot of this together in this book: war, empire, civilizor/civilizee, suffrage, sexuality — particularly homosexuality. I also enjoyed the bits about real historical figures like Dr. Rivers, Wilfred Owens, and Charles Dodgson (a.k.a., Lewis Carroll). I hear that more time is spent with Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon in the first two books — a reason to read them.

My favorite part of The Ghost Road was the first part, when Billy Prior is home on leave, just waiting to be allowed back to the front. His relationship with Sarah, his fiancé, though he himself is homosexual, is a welcome different look at the girl saying her potentially last goodbyes to her soldier. And for fun, Barker throws into the mix Prior’s future mother-in-law, Ada.

Billy Prior sat at the other end of the table, a concession to his new status as future son-in-law. No more material concessions had been forthcoming: he and Sarah had not been left alone together for a second. Though Ada was gratified by the engagement. She believed in marriage, the more strongly, Prior suspected, for never having sampled it herself. You don’t know that, he reminded himself. But then he looked round the room and thought, Yes, I do.

For this section of the book alone I wish I had read the first two in the trilogy.

Sadly, this part is over too soon. Prior, inevitably, goes back to the front, and Barker begins telling his story through his own diary entries. Meanwhile, Dr. Rivers’s story of his past and his experience in the present continue to converge. It was definitely compelling. And like I said above, I enjoyed it until I put the book down.

That’s when I started to think about what I’d received from the book. I have since come to the conclusion that I didn’t receive much. There were parts that were intriguing to me. Tying death and sex together is an interesting concept, but in this book it remains in the abstract for me. Barker’s attempts to bring that abstract concept into gritty realism didn’t work. In the end, a theme I was interested in didn’t ever really come together. I am still intrigued by the connections between death and sex in this book.  Sex seemed to be a way of leaving a bit of you behind, an attempt at immortality.  But Barker didn’t let it stand at that.  All of these images in the end came to one thing: death.  The absence is what stands out rather than any physical trace.

The worst part was that when I set the book down, I kind of felt like I’d heard most of it before, in some other war book or movie. Such reflection — even if just a repeated exercise — is important, but the book became part of a much larger montage and didn’t stand out in any significant way. Before my very eyes, it faded. I realized it wasn’t that good after all. (Perhaps if there had been more about Prior and his future mother-in-law.) Also, another intriguing part of the book, which I was anxious to see develop into an original statement, was the overlay of Dr. Rivers’s memories of his early days as a missionary doctor in the south seas onto his experiences as a doctor/psychiatrist during World War I. But even there, in the end, I felt that nothing new was being said.

I enjoyed reading this book many times over how much I enjoyed reading The Conservationist. Interesting that my experiences with both were so opposite. With The Conservationist I despised it while I read it and only after putting it down did I begin to see how it had worked in me (not enough to change my opinion on the book though).

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