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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 exposed. . . . One eye gone.” These are horrors, nothing else.

William Rivers wants to understand others and himself, for not only is he a psychologist but also as a child he was upstaged by his minister father, his sister Katherine, and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), a family friend who favored Katherine. Dodgson repressed his homosexuality, it seems, and feared snakes, and Rivers remembers these most about him, for he represses his own sexuality.

Like Dodgson, Rivers stammers for some reason, and, as his patient Billy Prior points out, a trauma in Rivers’ childhood has obscured his memory of what triggered this stammering. When his Uncle William, his namesake, was having his leg amputated (without, given the period, the benefit of anaesthesia), he made no sound, the story goes, and Rivers connects this silence to his shame over his own crying out at whatever happened to him—perhaps his first haircut. So he stammers now, but more than this, he realizes that “another person’s life, observed from outside, always has a shape and definition that one’s own life lacks.”

This deficiency regarding himself allows Rivers to see more than himself, and if in the novel he does most of this in the past, he comes as close to understanding the human condition in this way as Billy Prior does by taking what he can for himself in the present before death claims him or the men close to him.

Besides spending most of his time confronting what the past has done to his patients, Rivers also spends it summarizing what his stay in 1898 as a scientist in the village of Narovo on Eddystone Island in Melanesia meant to him. The culture he encountered there is defined for him in pidgin English by Njiru, who, by virtue of his status as a chief’s son, and because his twisted spine prevents him from becoming proper warrior, learns to be a healer and an adept in the cults of his tribe. Indeed, medicine in Njiru’s culture does not separate the ills of the body from the spirit itself, nor both from the ghosts who have their way with the living.

As Rivers observes later in tending mentally ill soldiers, down to the tasks usually left to nurses, “the rules of medicine are one thing, the rules of ritual drama another.”

Njiru practices this “ritual drama.” For example, Namboko Taru, a woman in his tribe, has constipation, and though he cures it with a massage typical of Western medicine at the time, he describes the illness as an octopus in the intestines, and says that it belongs to a class of maladies caused by Mateana, a vicious spirit.

Njiru’s tribe is gradually disintegrating, mainly because the West, with its advanced weapons and Christian bias, will not allow the tribe to practice headhunting, an enterprise upon which its sense of meaning and identity depends. In the meantime, Rivers, and his companion Hocart, the twenty-five-year-old “product of a Victorian vicarage,” gather as much information as they can about Njiru’s society.

The head houses, as Njiru points out, not so much the faculty of logic, to which he himself is to some extent committed, but the spirit, by which he means life itself, the livingness of a person, as it were. The head is thereby worth hunting, and brings honor to the hunter. When a chief dies, his wife must sit in a tomblike enclosure in their house until a head is brought from a rival tribe to free her. After the chief’s body rots away, his skull is brought to a skull graveyard like the one Njiru brings Rivers to visit at Pa Na Gundu. This place of “skull houses” reflects the power Njiru’s people ascribe to heads and spirits.

The world of the dead and the world of the living form a single paradigm of meaning in Njiru’s culture because they are joined by tomate, the spirit, which trades ailments for power after death and maintains an often nasty form of the desire it had when it was alive. Ange Mate, for instance, is a spirit who died in childbirth and has sex with men who fall asleep on the beach, and this makes them sick afterward, which sometimes means their penises vanish, or so Njiru says, not without amusement.

The analogue of this joining within the culture happens to Rivers when he and Njiru visit a cave where Njiru’s people used to hunt bats. In the chaos of bats in the darkness, Rivers and Njiru hold hands and Rivers feels stripped to an irreducible selfness. In this sense, he is open to a joined humankind beyond the cultures which try to define it. Sex as a metaphor for this unity is implied when Namboko Taru and Namboko Nali, another woman of Njiru’s tribe, give Rivers betel nut to chew and paint lime on his face.

Rivers’ power as a psychologist rests on this sense of unity with others, which reaches a climax when Njiru teaches him the prayer to exorcise “Ave . . . the destroyer of peoples,” and when he remembers it after Billy Prior’s friend Hallet dies in Empire Hospital where Rivers has been tending him.

Billy Prior uses action in the form of friendship and sex to close the void between himself and others, and William Rivers relies on language and open-mindedness to do the same. In his case, language especially gives access to the essence of human life. He struggles to clarify what he hears, and if he stammers like Lewis Carroll and Billy Prior because of fear, he still achieves the understanding that language tries to disclose. When Hallet is at the point of death and says “Shotvarfet” with his ruined mouth, Rivers finally translates the phrase as “It’s not worth it,” meaning World War I, and, by extension, any project mired in wholesale destruction for its own sake.

As an indictment of the suicide the culture of Europe was bent on in World War I— partly as a result of its hypocrisy in destroying other cultures because they made war, and partly as a result of giving its genius over to weapons rather than to empathy—The Ghost Road is a moving work, well worth the Booker Prize it received in 1995.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. December 3, 1995, p. 72.

The Guardian. November 9, 1995, p. 2.

London Review of Books. XVII, October 5, 1995, p. 9.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, September 29, 1995, p. 57.

The New York Times. December 6, 1995, p. C17.

The New York Times Book Review. C, December 31, 1995, p. 5.

Newsweek. CXXVI, December 18, 1995, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 27, 1995, p. 52.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 8, 1995, p. 4.

The Wall Street Journal. December 18, 1995, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, December 17, 1995, p. 1.

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