The Ghost Road is the third and final book in Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy - and it is by far the best of the series. The novel takes place in the waning months of the war and continues the story of Billy Prior who has returned to the front lines in France along with Wilfrid Owen (who previously spent time with Prior at Craiglockhart recovering from a breakdown). Neither man believes in the war, but are there out of duty to fight side by side with their comrades in arms. Psychiatrist Dr. Rivers continues to play a prominent role in this novel, seemingly safe from the war at his post in a London hospital. Dr. River’s memories of a time spent studying headhunters in the South Pacific run parallel to Billy’s story.
Barker weaves these two story lines together, deftly showing a culture of death and war amongst the South Pacific tribe linked to the mentality of modern society which supports the war in France.
Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. - from The Ghost Road, page 207 -
Barker’s prose is harsh yet poetic - a ying and yang style which draws the reader into the lives of the characters.
The roar of the approaching train startled the birds. They rose as one, streaming out from under the glass roof in a great flapping and beating of wings, wheeling, banking, swooping, turning, a black wave against the smoke-filled sky. Prior and Sarah watched, open-mouthd, drunk on the sight of so much freedom, their linked hands slackening, able, finally, to think of nothing, as the train steamed in. -from The Ghost Road, page 85 -
Billy Prior is a largely unlikeable character with his gritty, sardonic view of life - and yet he becomes a sympathetic symbol of all that is wrong with war. And as the reader turns the final pages, it is with the conviction that war is not worth it.
The Ghost Road is a simply wrought, yet beautifully constructed anti-war novel which is graphic and disturbing. Barker spares her reader nothing and shows the violent nature of human beings in the depiction of loveless sex and ruthless battles. This novel - which won the 1995 Booker Prize - should be read as part of the larger trilogy to gain its full impact.
Highly recommended with a caution that some readers may be offended by violence, graphic sexual scenes and realistic language.