Friday, 27 May 2011

The Ghost Road - Pat Barker

'The Ghost Road' is the 1995 Booker Prize winning novel by Pat Barker, and the third book in her 'Regeneration' trilogy. It's not imperative that you read the first two books in the series first, as it does make sense without them and it's easy to follow the story. However, there are a few references to events in the previous books ('Regeneration' and 'The Eye in the Door'), so reading them may benefit your understanding of 'The Ghost Road'.

The story takes place at the end of the First World War, and is told from the perspectives of two different characters. The first is the psychoanalyst Dr William Rivers, who was an actual doctor at the time of the war, whilst the second is Billy Prior, a totally fictional character. Prior is sent to Rivers' psychiatric hospital for rehabilitation, and we follow their story as the end of the war approaches.

The story switches timeframes a lot which can be confusing and difficult to follow. Rivers has flashbacks to a trip he took to Melanesia (a quick Google search tells me this is a group of islands somewhere in the Pacific), which unmarked in the middle of the story is disorientating and off-putting. However, I'm warning you now that they're there, so when you come to read them you don't get totally lost! At a first read it can be hard to see how these Melanesian episodes are relevant to the rest of the book, but trust me, they do mean something! For example, the state of death is constantly focused upon and mulled over during the Melanesian episodes, and the same theme is underlying in several other sections involving both Prior and Rivers.

As I mentioned before, Rivers was a real-life doctor during World War One, so Barker's representation of him is probably fairly accurate. At various points throughout the book we are allowed glimpses into Rivers' past, and it's nice to see that he hasn't had the picture-perfect background which you may expect. It's also nice to see how he has managed to succeed in the face of adversity - he may even be an inspiration to some, to improve their situation and past! For me, Rivers is a totally likeable character. He doesn't have a fatal flaw and (perhaps because he was a real person) is very believable.

In contrast, Billy Prior couldn't be more different if he tried. He's a very ambiguous character, both in terms of his sexuality and his general personality. Some of his language and sexual actions seem very crude and a bit repellent at times, which just doesn't gel with the side of him which is engaged to Sarah Lumb. In addition, with all the death and destruction which is splashed all over the news, it's hard for most of us to understand how he can actually want to return to the front line. He's a working class boy, yet somehow has managed to achieve the rank of Officer in the army, so for these reasons Prior is definitely a totally impossible character for the time in which he is set. The social constraints of the time mean that he would never have been allowed to behave as freely as he does in the story, which is one major downside of Barker's book. The protagonist could never be real.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating to read about the horrific nature of war, and how it affects all the soldiers in different ways. Rivers was one of the forefathers of modern psychoanalytical techniques, so it's really interesting to see how doctors at the time treated all the diverse conditions presented by the patients. Some of the treatments are quite bizarre, but it's also intriguing to try and get into the heads of the shell-shocked soldiers and at least attempt to understand how the war could have such a profound effect on them.

All in all, this book is definitely worth a read as not only is it just a nice bit of escapism, but it's really interesting to read about different aspects of the war from different perspectives. It's by no means a perfect book, but they rarely are. I would also definitely recommend reading it at least twice as a lot of things make much more sense second time round, and tie up nicely, although they're hard to spot if you read it only once. I wouldn't call it a prolific book, or one to change your outlook on life, but on the whole it is well constructed, researched and written, and is one of those books everyone should read at least once.

Summary: Worth a read
Rating: 4/5

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