The Ghost Road (Regeneration) Paperback – 1 May 2008
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An extraordinary tour de force. I'm convinced that the trilogy will win recognition as one of the few real masterpieces of late 20th-century British fiction (Jonathan Coe)
'Powerful, deeply moving.' (The Sunday Times)
'Harrowing, original, unforgettable.' (The Independent) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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It shows us how different cultures view death. Is it always terrible or sometimes are there worse things that can happen. Are all who die peaceful?
The book is set in the final stages of WW I and follows the lives William Rivers - a psychiatrist - and two of his patients - the poet Wilfred Owen and Billy Prior. Interlaced with these stories are recollections from Rivers of his time as an anthropologist.
The general arc of the story is not unpredictable, with the fate of Owen being too well known to come as a surprise or a shock. What does come through is the fatalism that holds sway over many of the characters within the book - they have seen too much already not to know the truth of the war. In this way many of the things they do feel like the preparations for death - and this seems be the link to the anthropological memories of rivers. What we are witnessing in the war and on the tropical islands are the rituals of death.
The story deals with the casual barbarity of the war on a psychological rather than physical level, and is all the more troubling for that approach. This casual indifference also seems to pervade all the references made to sex within the book, with most being depicted as unequal power relationships about revenge or humiliation. I suppose my surprise at these sections could have been heightened by not reading the other books in the series, but I doubt it.
Overall, this is an interesting investigation of people who have been forced to stare into the abyss of human violence. But in the end I found the inevitability of the plot distracting.
Recommended, but with a few reservations.
All three books are set during World War I. 'Regeneration' focuses on the war poet Siegfried Sassoon as he recovers from shell-shock in a war hospital in Scotland and is treated by Dr Rivers (who is the main character throughout the trilogy); 'The Eye in the Door' is based more on life in the UK during the war, looking at the issues facing homosexual men and those sheltering deserters and/or pacifists; while 'The Ghost Road' sees Billy Prior, a soldier who was in the war hospital in 'Regeneration' and involved heavily in 'The Eye in the Door', return to the war front. This final book is split between Prior's accounts of the war, Dr Rivers's work in a war hospital and Rivers's flashbacks/recollections of his early anthropological studies among a tribal culture.
The main themes binding the books are the sense of futility and hopelessness that drove soldiers to insanity; the emasculating effects of being stuck in a trench (or any place) where you are ordered to do things and have your fate taken out of your own hands. This is contrasted with the paternal relationship that Rivers develops with his patients, the paternal relationships that Sassoon and Prior feel for the soldiers they go to war with, and the often paternally-inflected homosexual relationships that crop up in the final two volumes, but particularly in volume two ('The Eye in the Door').
The concentrated gaze of the first volume, set almost entirely in the war hospital, adds to the intensity of the volume and helps to convey the intensity of the soldiers' experiences, which are described in an often shocking way that pulls no punches (I can't remember ever wincing before while reading a book).
While the second volume switches its gaze, it maintains a similar level of intensity and the grittier dialogue works well in adding to the more 'everyday' narrative. While volume one is set within a very regimented reality, removed somewhat from real life, volume two sits squarely within the domain of everyday life in Britain and Barker proves herself equally adept at capturing both.
Unfortunately the exact thing that gives the first two volumes their intensity - that level of focus - goes in 'The Ghost Road' as the narrative scatters about. I found it hard to really engage with any of the narrative threads, despite having invested in the main characters (Rivers and Prior) in the previous volumes. Rivers's recollections of his anthropological research do tie in very neatly thematically, but they feel too deliberate, too strained, and the natural, genuine feel of the first two books is consequently lost somewhat.
However, overall, this is a very intelligent account of the effects of World War I on everyone involved in it, from the soldiers at the front to the people left at home. I suspect 'The Ghost Road' won the Booker Prize more as a nod towards the quality of the trilogy as a whole than for that book on its own, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read the trilogy. Anyone interested in psychology, wars, war poetry or modern literature should.
I didn't find any of the characters likeable and for me they were superficially drawn. If I had to describe the book I'd say it was a study of the worst side of human nature - with a fest of sordid sexual encounters and gratutious violence. There is nothing wrong with either of these per se in a book but the way one unattractaive episode followed another became in the end for me laughable "uh oh here we go again ...". Like watching an explicitly violent film the power to shock and move soon wanes.
After reading most books I put them on my bookshelf in case I want to read them again or pass them on a friend. Unusually this one went straight in the recyclng bin. Try listening to 'The Band Played Waltzing Matilda' by June Tabor instead.Anthology
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