The Ghost Road is a war novel by Pat Barker, first published in 1995 and winner of the Booker Prize. It is the third volume of a trilogy that follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers towards the end of the First World War. The other books in the trilogy are Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.
Patricia Mary W. Barker, CBE, FRSL (born 8 May 1943) is an English writer and novelist. She has won many awards for her fiction, which centres on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Her work is described as direct, blunt and plainspoken. In 2012, The Observer named the Regeneration Awards and recognition
In 1983, Barker won the Fawcett Society prize for fiction for Union Street. In 1993 she won the Guardian Fiction Prize for the Eye in the Door, and in 1995 she won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road. In May 1997, Barker was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University as Doctor of the University. In 2000, she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
In the review of her novel Toby's Room, The Guardian stated about her writing, "You don't go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving story line and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world".
The Independent wrote of her, "she is not only a fine chronicler of war but of human nature."
In 2019 Barker was shortlisted for the Women's prize for fiction for The Silence of the Girls. In their review of the novel, The Times wrote, "Chilling, powerful, audacious . . . A searing twist on The Iliad. Amid the recent slew of rewritings of the great Greek myths and classics, Barker's stands out for its forcefulness of purpose and earthy compassion". The Guardian stated, "This is an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies."
List of works
Union Street (1982)
Blow Your House Down (1984)
The Century's Daughter (also known as Liza's England; 1986)
The Man Who Wasn't There (1988)
The Eye in the Door (1993)
The Ghost Road (1995)
Another World (1998)
Border Crossing (2001)
Double Vision (2003)
Life Class (2007)
Toby's Room (2012)
The Silence of the Girls (2018)Trilogy as one of "The 10 best historical novels".
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who appears as a major character in the first book, Regeneration, is relegated to a minor role in this final volume, in which the main players are the fictional working-class officer Billy Prior and the real-life psychoanalyst William Rivers. Thus Barker explores possible relationships between real people and fictional characters.
War is a theme that is both overt and hidden. Although the most obvious theme is war between nations, The Ghost Road also details war between individuals and war within oneself. The book is written against a background of the end of World War I in 1918, but it is also filled with flashbacks to a pre-World War I time on a South Pacific island. While the Melanesian island of Eddystone isn't caught up in the world's woes, it constantly fights for its own existence.
My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity.' Wilfred Owen wrote these words in the context of poetry having to deal with a new subject (mass warfare), rather than the birds, trees and flowers of the pre-war Georgian aesthetic.
The poet plays a bit part in Pat Barker's The Ghost Road. Owen is a fellow patient of the narrator Billy Prior at Craiglockhart Hospital, run by the army psychologist and former Melanesian ethnographer William Rivers. The book is part of Barker's war trilogy: Regeneration (1991) charted Owen's friend Siegfried Sassoon's recuperation at Craiglockhart, while The Eye in the Door (1993) compared Sassoon's experience with that of Prior, a bisexual working-class officer.
In The Ghost Road, Prior, returning to France in 1918, seems an 'uncharitable bastard' as he puts it, at least in the brutal male and female sexual liaisons he packs in before he is due back at the front. Indeed, given his sexual ambiguity, there is much play with the words 'front' and 'back'. Yet one soon realises this is not a retreat into smutty semantics, but part of an artistic structure.
Just as sexuality works along a spectrum, so human sensibility in the face of war cannot be divided into 'officer' or 'Tommy', 'enemy' or 'ally'; nor can the shell-shock victim be labelled 'sane' or 'mad'. 'My nerves are in perfect working order,' Prior writes to Rivers. 'By which I mean that in my present situation the only sane thing to do is to run away, and I will not do it. Test passed?'
Rivers, whose ethnographical activities are interpolated into Prior's narrative and journal, pondered questions of human universality on Eddystone Island, Melanesia, where he studied the kinship systems of headhunters. The word 'mate', he discovered, meant death in the local language - which brilliantly foreshortens the sexualised view of 'matey' masculine camaraderie in Prior's trench scenes. Elsewhere, Rivers draws women's stockings on the legs of a patient with hysterical paralysis to shock him into motion, bringing the death-sex connection full circle.
The carnal wit of Prior's voice marks out The Ghost Road as an important book. With his divided sexual and class loyalties, he seems a very contemporary figure, yet also a fitting monument to the mounds of historical dead. The poet Geoffrey Hill said that how we are disposed - sexually or otherwise - makes no difference. It is another disposal, the casual shovelling away of the blasted bodies, that counts. To have recognised this, and the pity of this, is Pat Barker 's achievement.
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