Top positive review
43 people found this helpful
A huge, limitless book
on 16 September 2001
The field of First World War novels may be a crowded one, but in 'The Ghost Road', Pat Barker is by no means overshadowed. Her subtle blending of fact and fiction allows her to convey every aspect of the war effectively from two perspectives: the psychological impact of it on those deeply involved, and wider view: how it affected social and mental barriers, inciting probing questions into the value of our own morality.
On the surface, we are presented with a seemingly straightforward negative account of the war, most prolifically in its impact on the two central characters, Prior and Rivers, who serve as the focus for the narrative throughout the book (the latter stages even being told directly from Prior's diary entries). However, upon a deeper reading, endless social judgements emerge, directed against every aspect of our society, along with predictable passes at the class system, which allowed the upper classes, and in particular, aristocratic army generals to distance themseves from the suffering endured by the men. Barker cleverly utilises a complex narrative which in itself would satisfy a reader, and saturates it with ambiguous, apparently descriptive yet deeply symbolic references, to the deepest political and philosophical issues.
Despite these being perhaps cliched themes, especially so considering the context, they are presented in such a way that makes them have a powerful impact on the reader, the sustained flatly harrowing tone, one of almost casual sadism, being as intriguing as it is grotesque. The opening line: 'In deck chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun' demonstrates this, the symbolism inherent here indicative of the way Barker starts as she means to go on. The close examination by a barbaric tribe of head hunters on a remote island, however, is perhaps the strongest and most overtly cynical judgement of the British system during the war: the way in which, in essence, there is no rational reasoning to explain the concept of rank. War as a setting is the opportunity Barker seizes with both hands to communicate her feelings about such matters, being in many ways the most extreme of human pursuits, and very widely understood as an institution, Barker perhaps manipulating the sensitivity surrounding it to drive her own ideas home. The result is that they are doubly effective.
This is not to suggest that Barker's narrative be devoid of successful characters: Prior and Rivers, the focal points throughout the book, are both richly constructed, with many delving psychological examinations. The development of Prior's character as he comes closer to first-hand conflict, in particular, serves to supply the reader with the personal aspect of the war, as well as being an enlightening and thought-provoking analysis of the human psyche. His release of repressed sexual feeling shortly before an assault on a German position a reflection, perhaps, of human capability and desires which, when faced with the inevitability of death, when life is measured and displayed, find openings in the calamity of mind.