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The Ghost Road – Pat Barker

September 5, 2011

If I were an author, a serious author, somebody with a reputation and a skill, I think I would want my skill to be in writing something other than historical fiction. My assumption is that historical fiction can be quite an exhausting thing to write in terms of research and development and creating events and characters that fit into a narrative that is far grander than what can be captured in your story without contradicting it. But the reason I wouldn’t want to write historical fiction is because I don’t think I could do it as well as Pat Barker.

In The Ghost Road, as with the two previous books in her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker does something again. Something truly unique – so few words, but powerful. It is a clarity that is accomplished without the fantastical, verbose production of Mr. Rushdie, but by having reduced each sentence to what may be its bare necessities. This makes each of her novels in this trilogy a very short read – a challenge for the reader to pace rather than to read. To let it soak into your imagination and develop every single word that is placed on the page. That is what you need to do with Pat Barker’s writing:

Wansbeck’s predicament was worse than either of these cases. Siegfried’s apparitions vanished as soon as he agreed to give up on his protest and go back to France. The external demands the nocturnal visitors represented, and which Siegfried himself believed to be valid, had been met. Harrington had been enormously helped by the discovery that he’d behaved better than he thought he had. From that moment on, his recovery had been one of the most dramatic Rivers could recall. Neither of these outcomes was available to Wansbeck, who’d fought a perfectly honourable war until one action had made him in his own eyes – and in the eyes of the law – a criminal. Almost everything one could say to console him either obscenely glossed over the offence or was in some other way insulting, and would have been instantly recognized as such by Wansbeck. A lesser man would have borne this better.

Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice. There was a real danger, he thought, that in the end the stories would become one story, the voices blend into a single cry of pain.

The above excerpt is told from the perspective of Dr. Rivers, one of the two major narrators in this story. He has been a major player throughout the trilogy, with his role as a narrator having only increased. As a character he enters the consciousness of the reader – ironic, as he is a psychiatrist of those forced to return from their duties in France (during the first world war) because of mental instabilities that are preventing them from contributing. As a result, he punctures each page with a single sentence filled with insight and intelligence and lead up to casually. It is through Dr. Rivers that Pat Barker casually announces that, ‘there was a real danger, he [Dr. Rivers] thought, that in the end the stories would become one story, the voices blend into a single cry of pain.’ Of course, if you’ve been reading through the first two books of the trilogy, you’re mostly expecting this kind of insight, but each moment that it arrives you are reminded of Barker’s talent.

Barker also did something entirely unexpected with this book. There are essentially three stories being told, and they do not seem to intersect at first, though it is with subtlety that you realize just how significant the three stories are to each other. One is the story of Dr. Rivers, who is still in London (as he was at the end of the first book and throughout the second book), working to help those mentally paralyzed by their wartime experiences overcome their fears so that he can send them back to the front. Another is that of Billy Prior, the protagonist of the second novel and sometimes-antagonist of the first, as he prepares for being sent back to France for this fourth term of duty. And finally, entirely unexpectedly, another narration develops in the prose of flashbacks to Dr. Rivers’ earlier life in the East Indies, living and working with the ‘uncivilized’ persons of the East Indies. Thematically and narratively each of these interrupt each other, slowing down the pace of the novel, but adding substantially to the tension that the reader feels.Things happen in each and every one that is heartbreaking, alarming.

And each is imbued with Pat Barker’s keen eye to character development and, best of all, insight. Dr. Rivers talks about the damage of war to the winning nation, the story of Rivers in the East Indies is an opportunity for an intellectual man to explore the morals of his winning nation, and Billy Prior’s story, told through a diary, tells the story of a soldier and is filled to the brim with Pat Barker’s essential theses about the war as a social movement:

Five months ago Charles Manning offered me a job at the Ministry of Munitions and I turned it down, and said if I was sent back to France… “If if if if – I shall sit in a dug-out and look back to this afternoon, and I shall think, “You bloody fool.”‘

I remember sitting on the stiff brocade sofa in his drawing-room as I said it.

Well, here I am, in what passes for a dug-out. And I look round me at all these faces and all I can think is: What an utter bloody fool I would have been not to come back.

Within each of these are dramatic set-pieces and sections. As mentioned earlier, they are heartbreaking and alarming. And I don’t want to tell you much more than that, as I don’t want to ruin the story for you. But I do highly, highly recommend this novel to anybody who is interested in historical fiction. It is not without flaws (which, I realize I did not outline at all), but it overcomes them with the powerful moments that fill the pages. If you want the visceral, emotional experience that the novel contains – if you want to experience it as the author wants you to experience it – then start the Regeneration Trilogy where it begins, with Regeneration, and follow these characters as they adapt to the final year of the first Great War. If you don’t know if you have that kind of commitment (and I think you do!), then reading this novel is still worth it. I can’t accurately imagine it as a stand-alone as I have read the full trilogy, but I do think that there is enough contained in the novel to provide a full reading experience. Provided you’re willing to give it a chance – and you should (but definitely read the other two first…).

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