The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995) 278 p.
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.