(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first two novels in Pat Barker’s trilogy about the British experience in World War I are Regeneration (1991) and The Eye in the Door (1993); the third, The Ghost Road, focuses on Lieutenant Billy Prior, a commoner, and William Rivers, a neurologist who tends soldiers whom the war has torn apart mentally and physically. Through these protagonists, and also through Njiru, the deformed son of a South Seas tribal chief, the novel probes how humans deal with death.

The title The Ghost Road refers to the direction that the dead take in the eyes of the living in the context of war. Alternating chapters of the novel are narrated from the viewpoint of Billy Prior, who spends most of his time in the present, and William Rivers, who spends most of his time in the past. The exception is the last chapter, which contains passages from both their points of view (as well as a brief omniscient point of view to present the aftermath of a battle on the Sambre-Oise Canal in France).

Part 1 of The Ghost Road concentrates on describing the main characters and their interests and desires; part 2 uses Billy Prior’s diary in the last months of World War I to track his movements from England back to the battlefields of France, and William Rivers’ flashbacks to show his experiences with a tribe of headhunters in the South Seas. In part 3, again through Prior’s diary, Barker highlights the details of the war itself, and, again through Rivers’ memory and through his contact with the war-wounded, compares British culture (which goes to war to perish) with that of Njiru’s South Seas tribe (which goes to war to survive).

Prior has asthma, but he does not let this condition keep him out of the war. Although he has been sent back to England once for a wound to his elbow, once for a gas wound, and once for shell shock, he continues to return to France. Friendship and lust rather than patriotism and romance motivate him. He can neither do without sex nor without his doomed friends. Those with whom he is sexually intimate include his lover in London, fellow war veteran Charles Manning, a prostitute in Scarborough, his fiancée Sarah Lumb, and a French boy in a town the British have taken from the Germans. Among his friends are Dr. Rivers, who can help cure his patients’ minds, but cannot save them from the war; poet Wilfred Owen, whose knowledge of their language lures French women to him; and Hallet, who was “educated to think as little as possible” and who makes Prior’s rescue of him in battle useless.

Billy Prior is an aficionado of the moment. He takes sex where and with whom he can find it, especially with his fiancée Sarah. Sarah’s mother, Ada Lumb, has had two daughters but never married. Although it is evident to Billy that she has an eye for men, Ada poses as a Christian shopkeeper who invites an Anglican priest over on Sundays and leaves her large Bible open to horrifying texts. Like most of the women in the novel, Ada puts up a front of respectability, but is drawn to something else. If Emele, Chief Ngea’s widow in Melanesia, wants to live even as she imitates her husband’s burial, and if the young women of the tribe engage in unrestricted sex before marriage restrains them, and if Sarah herself wants her dead fiancé rather than Billy Prior, none of them insist on what custom or fact forbid.

Ada’s insistence on respectability provides a comic counterpoint to the horrors of war and death recounted elsewhere in the novel. When Ada appears suddenly while Billy and Sarah are having sex on the sly in the Lumb living room and Sarah’s sister Cynthia helps the couple hide the signs of sex, farce seems the most accurate word for the whole scene.

Because Prior is so vividly immersed in the present, the details recorded by his point of view show the reader what the war has done. In a French town, for example, Prior sees the “sandbagged witch’s tit of a cathedral” and the “doddering old crone of a moon” in a canal, and “roses massed round a broken pergola, white ruffled blooms with a heavy scent. . . . Lace curtains hanging limp behind cracked or shattered glass.” Discounting the surfeit of adjectives in them, one sees these images, like Prior’s attraction to a French woman carrying a loaf of bread, as a sign of how badly the war has treated the female and how the fecundity of the female has survived just the same.

Related to this is Prior’s view that rushing into battle from a trench is “sexy” because it entails “racing blood, risk, physical exposure, a kind of awful daring.” On the other hand, he mentions “the rib-cages of horses that rotted where they fell,” recalls “bits of human bone sticking out of the walls” of trenches, and describes Hallet with his “brain...

(The entire section is 1967 words.)