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0268 | The Ghost Road – Pat Barker

Context: Weeded my mate’s allotment while reading this.

The final part of the Regeneration trilogy picks up with Billy Prior getting cleared to return to the front in France and his return. Alongside this narrative unfolds more of W.H.R. Rivers’ story, only this time there’s much more from his anthropology days in Melanesia than in the previous books and Barker cleverly works the Melanesian into Rivers’ day to day work in Britain.

Billy also begins a diary which means that you get more of his inside views on things. There are more disturbingly graphic sex scenes too as he pursues his bisexual tendencies and the shell-shock, at least from Prior’s point of view, seems to take a back seat although there are smaller vignettes of other patients that Rivers treats.

There’s more detail in this book than any other about how Rivers became the doctor he was. As Barker draws on the original notebooks that Rivers wrote his anthropological data in, we see how she has constructed his character and thus depicted his approach to treating the victims of shell-shock. I found that doing this in the third novel of a trilogy was much more satisfying because it meant that by now I was much more interested in where Rivers had come from and what had influenced him than I would have been two books ago when I was just getting to know him. He was, it seems, quite a remarkable man if Barker’s descriptions are even remotely correct.

Again, as with The Eye in the Door, there’s a lot going on here. Barker has a great way of using metaphor to convey themes to the reader which, if you’re not careful, you’ll miss because of their subtlety. The futility of conflict, for example, is depicted ingeniously by the juxtaposition not only of the WW1 debacle that we in the west know so well but by the descriptions of Rivers’ experience with headhunters in the Torres Straits in Melanesia. While on the one hand, western society at the time was condemning the tiny scale of Melanesian conflict as needless and barbaric, it was lauding the valorous demise of an entire generation of men.

It’s only by reflecting carefully on the entire construction of the novel from its grand themes to its details that reveals the richness of her writing. I’m sure it was such ability that earned Barker her Booker Prize. I think such an award is entirely just for a novel which closes out a trilogy which will forever influence how I see not only WW1 but also my nation and its part in it.


In the deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun.


A long moment, and then the brown face, with its streaks of lime, faded into the light of the daytime ward.


Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement
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