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The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
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The Ghost Road (original 1995; edition 1995)

by Pat Barker

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2,003363,351 (3.99)238
Member:lilianboerboom
Title:The Ghost Road
Authors:Pat Barker
Info:E. P. Dutton (1995), Edition: 1st, Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
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The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)

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I have conflicting feelings about Remembrance Day, and the public reverence of World War I in both Britain and Australia. I suspect that for most of the 20th century, when the war was a real event in the living memory of many people, that it was probably purely a day of remembrance and reflection. Now, in the age of 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan, when it seems so distant as to be entirely mythical, I think our society’s perception of World War I – and, by extension, all wars – has slipped back towards the jingoism and nationalism of the 19th century ruling class who propagated it in the first place. I stood at the moat of the Tower of London last week, amongst crushing crowds, and admired Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red for the striking public artwork that it is – but I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by this sanitised, aestheticised depiction of war, which has become the accepted norm.

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. ( )
2 vote edgeworth | Nov 12, 2014 |
The last of the Regeneration trilogy. I'm not sure why this won the Booker award in 1995. In this last in the trilogy, we learn the history of Dr Rivers and brings the life of Billy Prior up to date. I'd recommend reading this trilogy without much time lapsed between each book because otherwise one would be at risk of forgetting the issues faced by some of the characters that play cameo roles or are mere mentions in the later books. I think Regeneration is by the far the best of the three, and The Ghost Road the weakest of the three. It was still good, but by no means as brilliantly written as the Regeneration. ( )
  cameling | Oct 15, 2013 |
Don't make the mistake I did, read the last one first read them in order. Sucked in by the Booker prize! ( )
  IanMPindar | May 16, 2013 |
Brilliant. Enthralling. The story swapping between Captain River's hospital life and Melanesian reminiscences, and Billy Prior's return to the front kept me absolutely captivated. I read much longer than I intended to each night, wanting to know what would happen to these characters who are so beautifully and sympathetically drawn by Pat Barker. My affection for and understanding of them has built and built over the course of the three novels.

I'm sad to have finished the Regeneration trilogy. Time to seek out the rest of Pat Barker's books. ( )
  Vivl | Apr 19, 2013 |
re-read (audiobook) ( )
  koeeoaddi | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
Pat Barker has incorporated many of the actual words of the war's most eloquent narrators in her complex and ambitious work . . . too striking as hybrids of fact and possibility, easy humor and passionate social argument to be classified as anything but the masterwork to date of a singular and ever-evolving novelist who has consistently made up her own rules.
 

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barker, Patprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dijk, Edith vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance

~ 'Roads', Edward Thomas
Dedication
For David
First words
In the deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This book challenges our assumptions about relationships between the classes, doctors and patients, men and women, and men and men. It completes the author's exploration of the First World War, and is a timeless depiction of humanity in extremis Originally published: London: Viking, 1995.… (more)

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2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 014103095X, 0141399376

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