History: This book was first published in 1995 and winner of the Booker Prize. It is the third volume of a trilogy that follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers towards the end of the First World War. The other books in the trilogy are Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who appears as a major character in the first book, Regeneration, is relegated to a minor role in this final volume, in which the main players are the fictional working-class officer, Billy Prior, and the real-life psychoanalyst, William Rivers. Thus Barker explores possible relationships between real people and fictional characters.
Plot: Prior, despite his new-found peace of mind and engagement to munitions worker Sarah, has been affected by the war and therefore does not have a lot of concern for his safety. Going along with this theme, he has a lot of risky sexual encounters; his only rule is that he never pays for sex - a rule he eventually breaks. This episode is a symbolic capitulation to the inevitability of his death at the Western Front, a fate he shares with the poet, Wilfred Owen.
Rivers, concerned for Prior's safety, finally recognises that his relationship with Prior, and his other patients for that matter, is deeply paternal. In contrast with upper-class officers like Sassoon, with whom Rivers has been able to form warm friendships, he has always found Prior a thorn in his side. As Prior returns to the front, Rivers reminisces uncomfortably about his childhood and research expeditions as a young anthropologist.
Review: The Booker Prize recently awarded to Barker for this book, the culmination of her astonishing WWI trilogy that began with Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, persuaded Dutton to move publication ahead by eight months, which is good news for American readers. Though it would seem almost impossible to look at that appalling conflict with a fresh eye, Barker has succeeded in ways that define the novelist's art: by close observation as well as by deployment of a broad and painfully compassionate vision, all rendered in prose whose very simplicity speaks volumes. The present book can be read without reference to the others, but all are mutually enriching. They revolve around William Rivers, a psychologist who pioneered the treatment of shell shock, and some of his patients, who include such real-life figures as poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the fictional Lieutenant Billy Prior, a bisexual whose life as an officer is complicated by his working-class origins. The questions the trilogy addresses are profound ones like the nature of sanity, the politics of class, war and sex, and the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of meaningless slaughter. In The Ghost Road, the war is nearing its end, which renders the continuing horrors of trench warfare ever more futile. Prior is sent back to the front after Rivers's treatment, enjoys a strange idyllic interlude in a ruined village, rescues a horribly wounded fellow officer and then faces the stupidest massacre of all. Meanwhile Rivers takes on new nightmare cases?and begins to remember his anthropological researches in Melanesia years before, when he strove to understand the rituals of a people whose greatest pleasure, head-hunting, had been abolished by a British colonial administration. The contrast between the primitives' deeply considered approach to death and the pointless killing indulged in by supposedly more civilized people is only hinted at, but it gives the book, particularly in its deeply eloquent concluding pages, enormous resonance. The whole trilogy, which in its entirety is only equivalent in length to one blockbuster serial-killer frenzy, is a triumph of an imagination at once poetic and practical.
Opening Line: "In deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun.
Closing Line: "A long moment, and then the brown face, with its streaks of lime, faded into the light of the daytime ward."
Quotes: "The war, he insited loudly, flushed with wine, was feathering the nests of profiteers. It was being fought to safeguard access to the oil-wells of Mesopatamia. It had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Belgian neutrality, the rights of small nations or anything like that."