A World War I novel on civilized and uncivilized warfare. The protagonist is a British psychologist, treating soldiers for shell shock. Before the war he lived in a British colony in the Far East, studying headhunters until the practice was banned by the British as uncivilized. Now, as he witnesses the carnage of civilized artillery and machine guns he asks himself why is this not banned? By the author of The Eye in the Door.
Mostly Barker assumes that the reader will not know this beat The Moor's Last Sigh for the Booker prize, because, knowing that, the reader is tempted to go after the Booker committee with a sharp stick.
Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy – which begins with Regeneration, continues in The Eye In The Door and concludes with the Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road – is an incredibly important piece of contemporary literature which highlights the real, ugly truth of the war; one of the most important truths being the fact that it had terrible effects on everybody it touched, not just the young men who lost their lives. (And I use the word “lost” rather than “gave” very intentionally.) It’s notable that The Ghost Road is the first novel in the series which actually has scenes set in the war zone that aren’t memories, dreams or flashbacks. The previous two books, especially The Eye in the Door, focused as much on the wives, mothers, pacifists, protesters and wounded as they did on the soldiers and the dead. That’s another side effect of our reverence for veterans and war dead; it marginalises the effects war has on civilians.
From a purely technical standpoint The Ghost Road is certainly the finest book in the trilogy, and a deserving winner of the Booker Prize. It cleanly narrows the scope down to two of the trilogy’s main characters: Dr Rivers, a fictionalised version of the real-life psychologist who treated traumatised soldiers, and Billy Prior, Barker’s fictional working class officer who returns to the front despite an opportunity for a desk role, out of an ineffable sense of duty towards his fellow soldiers. Prior’s experience at the front is contrasted with Rivers’ treatment of the wounded in London, and a surprisingly extensive flashback sequence detailing Rivers’ time as an anthropologist in the South Pacific, which serves as a comparative metaphor about death and its effect on those who remain living. I criticised Barker’s writing style in Regeneration and to a lesser extent The Eye In The Door because much of it involved conversations between two men sitting on opposite sides of a desk. The Ghost Road, however, has a wonderful sense of physical beauty, from a tropical beach in Melanesia to the ruins of an overgrown French village:
A labyrinth of green pathways led from garden to garden, and they slipped from one to another, over broken walls or through splintered fences, skirting bramble-filled craters, brushing down paths overgrown with weeds, with flowers that had seeded themselves and become rank, with overgrown roses that snagged their sleeves and pulled them back. Snails crunched under their boots, nettles stung their hands, cuckoo spit flecked a bare neck, but the secret path wound on.
I’ve always appreciated this trilogy for its brutal and honest depiction of the war, but The Ghost Road is the first of Barker’s books which I actually enjoyed as a novel as well.
It’s not easy (and nor should it be) to criticise the manner in which nations memorialise their war dead; it can easily come off as churlish and cynical. I don’t mean to suggest this day of remembrance should be done away with. But I feel uneasy about a ritual which has begun to take on symbolic, semi-religious overtones, with its symbols (poppies) and incantations (Gallipoli, Anzac, lest we forget). From the earliest days of primary school I’ve had those words drilled into my head, long before I could properly appreciate and understand even the concept of war. During the minute’s silence in November I’d imagine myself in the trenches with rifle and bayonet in hand – not an empathic act of remembrance, but rather a boyish adventure fantasy. I doubt I was the only one. When the symbols and artworks of our remembrance are sanitised, when our politicians repeatedly say things as trite and false as “they died for our freedom,” and when the right wing can reposition World War I into a more pleasing arrangement of good vs evil, it’s clear that our society is deeply conflicted about how it wishes to portray this war. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy does us a great service by presenting the era in all its ugly detail; not just the grisly slaughter of the front, but the twisted politics of British imperialism, class warfare and capitalism which led to it. The Regeneration trilogy is a warning that while we must remember, we must not remember selectively.
I think this is the strongest of the three books, or perhaps I have become more invested in Barker’s Dr. Rivers and his patients over the course of reading the previous two; I remember being as impressed with Barker’s writing in the other two – she really is a wordsmith, a character forger, and approaches her subject with the utmost respect, humour and a real quest for understanding. Regardless, this is an important trilogy and each book should be read, digested, considered and loved on its own merits
These three books form the cornerstones of my reading year, and I recommend them to anyone whose interests in literature include war, mental health, sexuality, historical or biographical fiction of any kind, or indeed anyone who relishes characters so strongly portrayed that they could have been acting out their lives in your room while you were reading.
Barker weaves these two story lines together, deftly showing a culture of death and war amongst the South Pacific tribe linked to the mentality of modern society which supports the war in France.
Barker’s prose is harsh yet poetic - a ying and yang style which draws the reader into the lives of the characters.
Billy Prior is a largely unlikeable character with his gritty, sardonic view of life - and yet he becomes a sympathetic symbol of all that is wrong with war. And as the reader turns the final pages, it is with the conviction that war is not worth it.
The Ghost Road is a simply wrought, yet beautifully constructed anti-war novel which is graphic and disturbing. Barker spares her reader nothing and shows the violent nature of human beings in the depiction of loveless sex and ruthless battles. This novel - which won the 1995 Booker Prize - should be read as part of the larger trilogy to gain its full impact.
Highly recommended with a caution that some readers may be offended by violence, graphic sexual scenes and realistic language.
This is the third book in a series, and I read it because it won the Booker prize, without reading the previous novels. It was tough to get started because of that. The author didn’t waste any time recapping what had happened before, so I had to guess and piece together the characters as best I could. I have to say it is not intended to be read without the preceding novels, but I managed.
“It’s not worth it” is the basic message here, referring to the war. There are also graphic descriptions of homosexual sex too. One of the soldiers is bisexual, engaged to be married, and has sex with female prostitutes, his fiance, and various men. I believe his character may be explained better in the previous novels, or at least the author may give some background.
So it’s interesting, just not that effective standing alone.
Overall, this trilogy is a wonderful glimpse into the atmosphere of Britain during the First World War.
In The Ghost Road Ms. Barker continues to mix historical fact with fiction to tell her story. Billy Prior is a fictional character but Dr. Rivers is a historical figure who really did spend time living with a tribe of headhunters. During his flashbacks we learn quite a lot about the lives and customs of the South Seas natives. They have been forced to abandon their headhunting customs by the British who now control the area, but they have done so reluctantly. After the death of their chief it is clear that they want to go on the traditional hunt and bring back skulls in tribute to their lost leader, but they cannot. They have been forced into "civilized" life. We can't help but contrast them with the soldiers in Billy Prior's part of the novel.
After serving in France, Billy Prior finds it difficult to function in civilian England. He believes the war is futile, that it's final days are being stretched out so the diplomats can get better terms in the peace treaty, but he wants to go back to the fight, back to the life he led on the battlefield, more than anything. He cannot stand to be around civilians for long at all. Ms. Barker brings this home when she describes Billy's reaction to hearing the phrase "go over the top" used by party goers to describe a drinking binge or an argument. The phrase comes from the soldiers who used it in reference to climbing out of the safety of their trenches and charging the enemy. A phrase that fills Billy Prior with dread on the battlefield is the newest slang and a source of laughter back home. There must be hundreds of little things like this that infuriate soldiers returning home from battle. One of the best aspects of Ms. Barker's books is how well she understands the effect words can have and how clear she makes it for the reader.
In the final section of the book we follow the story of Billy Prior through a journal he keeps during breaks in the final days of the fight. He writes how certain words no longer mean anything. Words like patriotism, honor, courage. While other smaller words have taken on great weight:
But now I look round this cellar with the candles burning on the tables and our linked shadows leaping on the walls, and I realize there's another group of words that still mean something. Little words that trip through sentences unregarded: us, them, we, they, here, there. These are the words of power, and long after we're gone, they'll lie about in the language, like the unexploded grenades in these fields, and any one of them'll take your hand off.
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker gets my highest rating of five out of five stars. These three books are the highlight of my reading summer and surefire bets for my end of the year top ten. Surefire--what do suppose the chances are that word comes from wartime usage
I remember a pilgrimage we once made to Wilfred Owen's grave when we were living in Brussels. I was reading a lot about WWI, mainly the literature and poetry, and found a book that described the site of Owen's grave. So we set off one sunny Sunday morning with the kids strapped into the back of our canary-yellow Fiat, across the border and into the rolling French countryside. We had some difficulty finding the grave because it was located inside a village cemetery. I had never seen that arrangement for a commonwealth war grave and I didn't think the instructions could be correct. So, we first explored a couple of the large commonwealth cemeteries near the village (they have handy indexes so one does not have to peer at every stone!), but when we couldn't find Owen we circled back to the village cemetery as the only possibility. It was crowded up against the street, set off by a low stone wall, and replete with large, gaudy monuments to dear departed, grim statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, calls to angels, family photos, wilted flowers and untended and weedy sites. I was dismayed, but tucked away in the back of the cemetery was a small, well-tended plot with twelve commonwealth war graves, including that of Wilfred Owen. I was glad to be there, to pay homage I suppose to the poetry, as much to the man and to the memory of the countless other Billy Priors. I thought of the opening lines of his Anthem for Doomed Youth:
What passing-bells, for these who die as cattle?
--Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
An interesting juxtaposition in book between the war, and Rivers's experience as a young anthropologist in the South Pacific with a community of headhunters, then stopped from headhunting by the "civilizing" influence of British power. Barker describes a society in decline because a central feature of its structure-headhunting-has been taken away and the links to values and relationships to the gods that govern the society are destroyed. I don't know if Barker intended it, but I saw a grim comparison of the civilizing influence of a great power (Britain) forced upon a native people with attendant social dislocation, but no doubt "justified" as necessary to raise these people above the level of "savages", while at the same time that same great power and others, repositories of the most advanced stage of civilization on earth, were slaughtering millions of their own people, and for what? Abhorrent as one might find the practice of headhunting, it was an integral part of a society's structure and values and beliefs. Is this of a lesser order in a cosmic listing of values than the deaths of millions to preserve some sort of power relationship among great nations?
Dr. William Rivers is a psychologist who treats the men at the hosptial. His optimism and belief in the human spirit have helped many men. However, when he treats a soldier named Moffet who suffers from emotional paralysis of the legs, he cures the affliction but finds Moffet in the bathroom attempting to commit suicide.
There is also a good description of the upper class and the working class. At one point, an officer tells Prior that they won't be able to understand the W.C.s (working class) because they are so different than the upper class are.
Billy tells Rivers that to many of the W.C.s the war is the means with which they will be able to raise their status.
The novel won the 1995 Booker Prize and provides a good psychological profile of the soldiers and their acceptance of orders to go to the front and for many, sacrifice their lives.
As the end of World War I approaches, and while men are still dying in France, the Spanish influenza epidemic is taking hold back home. Rivers spends a lot of time thinking back to his time as an anthropologist in Melanesia. He was studying a tribe on Eddystone Island, who had only recently given up headhunting at the insistence of the colonial powers and whose attitude towards death was very different to the Europeans.
A strong end to a brilliant trilogy.
Despite that, this book was utter poetry. God… the mixture of beauty of language and the ugliness of war… and the humanity of… of just being human. And that some of these people—many of them, actually—really existed, really died… it serves to deepen an already poignant, mesmerizing, heart-breaking novel.
The imagery is so beautiful. In a way it reminds me of the movie A Thin Red Line. It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie, but what I do remember is a combination of beauty with the ugliness of, in this case, the second World War.
I’m going to read the first two books of this trilogy as soon as possible.
The time period of this book is the fall of 1918 which we all now know was to be the last gasp of WWI. Even at that time the countries involved and the soldiers knew the war was coming to a close. But both sides continued to fight and many lives were lost. In the original books men diagnosed with shell shock were sent to a hospital in Scotland where Dr. Rivers attempted to cure them even though he was ambivalent about the task because he knew if he was successful the men would be going back to fight. Among the men he treated were some of the great poets of World War I including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. They only appear tangentially in this final book which centres on the journal of Billy Prior, a fictional character who was treated with Sassoon, Owen and the others, and the thoughts of Dr. Rivers. Prior to the war Rivers was an anthropologist studying the head hunting tribes in Melanesia and he draws parallels between this European war and the culture of death on the other side of the world.
Barker does a superb job of exploring the inner workings of the minds of Prior and Rivers. As a female it must have been much like an anthropological study because men, especially men of the early 20th century, are as big a mystery as the tribes of remote regions to me. It is clear that she did a lot of research judging by the list of books she recommends for further reading. However, she must have also spent considerable time putting herself into her characters' minds.
Highly recommended but probably only after reading the other two books in the trilogy.
I'm sad to have finished the Regeneration trilogy. Time to seek out the rest of Pat Barker's books.
This is the third book in Barker's Regeneration trilogy and for me the fastest paced. This book concentrates on war and struggle both internal and external but mainly how different view death. Although a few of the former residents of the mental hospital Craiglockhart are mentioned this book generally revolves around psychiatrist Charles Rivers and former patient, commoner turned officer,Billy Prior with each chapter alternating between them.
Billy a former resident of Craiglockhart and patient of Dr Rivers continues to see him as an outpatient in London as he struggles with his demons. He returns to France for his fourth tour of duty despite being at one time invalided out and offered a safe desk job in the UK. It is unclear quite why he returns to France other than fighting is all he knows and questions his place in society. He is someone who lives in the present grabbing sex wherever and whenever he can get it both with women and men. Dr Rivers in also haunted by his own demons but these are more rooted in his past and in particular his time on Melanesian island of Eddystone where he sees a very different outlook on death.
Once again this is a well written book and a worthy finale to this enthralling trilogy and perhaps one of the best things that I can say about it is that despite virtually all the characters are male at no time is it obvious that they were written by a woman. These books deserve all the praise that they've received
William Rivers pioneered the treatment of shell shock, and Billy Prior was one of his patients. By this volume we are nearing the end of World War I, but Billy Prior is going back to the front, knowing as we do that the end is near makes the slaughter all the more senseless. Dr Rivers meanwhile goes on to treat new cases and explores his memories of his research in Melanesia where he tried to understand a people who relished head-hunting. The comparison of this carefully carried out ritual contrasted vividly with the messy butchering that was going on at the Front.
Although you don’t have to have read the previous two books in the trilogy, there are references back, and characters that are common to all three books, so reading all of them makes the story stronger, more cohesive and brings a clarity to the underlying meanings. Overall these three books, read together produce a rich and varied story made all the stronger by the author’s brilliant writing.