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Pat Barker: The Ghost Road

The final novel in Barker’s World War I trilogy is about the waning months of World War I. The ghosts in the title refer, at least, in part, to the many men still sent to their deaths during this period, when, as Barker says, talk of pacifism was banned and there was still a call for that final push. The book once again follows Billy Prior. At the end of the previous novel, Billy was off to visit his fiancée, Jane. He is now staying with Jane, Jane’s mother and Jane’s sister. Jane’s mother is nominally a widow but Billy suspects that there never was a husband. The mother is very watchful of her daughter’s morals and the couple can get little time together. Only when they sneak out of one of the mother’s séances, do they have time for a quick fuck. Billy is still getting sex elsewhere, from Charles Manning and other London male friends to a farm boy he picks up when on active duty in France. Indeed, though he had the option to work for the Ministry of Munitions, he decides to go back to France, despite his asthma.

We also follow Dr. Rivers’ activities, including his relationship with his sister, more about his relationship as a child with Charles Dodgson and more of his unorthodox cures, including painting stockings on the legs of man who claims to be paralysed in his legs. More particularly, we learn a lot more about Rivers’ anthropological work in the South Pacific (which, because of the war, was never published). The people on the island on which he is staying seem to be obsessed with death. They had initially been headhunters but, under British occupation, this had been forbidden to them (though they do kidnap a young boy from another island while Rivers is there). They however do seem to be very much involved with death and when someone dies there is an elaborate ritual to follow which can mean that the surviving wife kills herself (though this is not mandatory). Barker is obviously making a comparison with our wartime obsessions but she also shows other differences, such as their need to share and their communion with ghosts (which may not be a difference).

The final part of the novel is about the final few weeks of World War I. Billy does not regret being there but, for many, the whole business seems futile, particularly as there is talk of peace in the air. Billy gets a Military Cross for bravely saving a fellow officer who had been shot with part of his brain blown away. Just to emphasise the point, Barker gives us a fairly graphic description of his agonizing death in hospital a few weeks later, while surrounded by his family. The real futility of the war is shown in the final attack Billy’s unit makes, to take a canal strongly occupied by the Germans. This is a historical event and it resulted in the death of Wilfred Owen as well as many others, some of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour. Our obsession for death is effectively skewered in this novel.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Viking