Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 2, 2020

The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, winner of the Booker Prize in 1995

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker, won the Booker Prize in 1995.

January 1st, 1999

The Ghost Road is the third of a very famous trilogy of stories set in WW1: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. Interestingly, I found the first better than the other two, though the sequels won increasingly impressive prizes while the first one didn’t.

Apparently well researched and using real people like the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and their treating psychiatrist Dr Rivers, the stories focus on the psychological health of the soldiers. Regeneration exposes the absurdity of a bureaucracy declaring Sassoon insane, and then ‘curing’ him in order to nullify his protests about the futility of the war. Clearly they were mad, and he was not, but the novel’s not really heavy-handed about that.

It’s not really heavy-handed about the homosexuality of Sassoon, Owen and Rivers either; it’s just there in the background in Regeneration. The sequel, The Eye in the Door, however, goes into quite lurid detail about another war victim’s sexual proclivities. Prior isn’t likeable, but it’s not because he’s a promiscuous bisexual who’s going to break the heart of a working class girl who’s already been widowed once. His story is used to expose the madness of the military. He was sent to fight in France despite his asthma, sent home with a breakdown, cured of that but invalided out because of his asthma, and then sent off to work in Intelligence. (I suppose it could be true. It’s too crazy not to be). Prior, in his Jekyll-and-Hyde role, is forced to betray pacifists with whom he identifies, and ends up in the care of Dr Rivers – who blames his awful behaviour on childhood trauma, not the war. Of course.

But I lost the plot myself in The Ghost Road. Rivers himself is traumatised as he reflects on the way he has destroyed so many young lives with his absurd cures and diagnoses. The novel then saunters off into Melanesia with Rivers’ memories of doing some anthropological research amongst head hunting tribes. There are more torrid sex scenes starring Prior, and more violence on the battlefield. Maybe it was because I was reading this very late at night after New Year’s Eve partying, but I found it hard to pull these threads together.

Well, it’s always a bit disconcerting not to like a prize-winning book, so I was relieved to find some like-minded souls online. The Guardian Book Review was quite firm in its criticism, and The Mooksie and the Gripes was a bit doubtful. Thanks to Red-Headed Ramble* for the links.

I finished reading this book and journalled it on 4.1.1999.

PS Red-Headed Ramble’s blog is no longer accessible.


Responses

  1. I often wonder how books win awards but there must be something the judges see in them. I don’t think this one js my cup of tea. I have had a hard time getting jnto Pat Barker’s books and isn’t an author I pick up.

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    • Well, I think we’re all a bit over fiction about WW1 anyway, there has been such a flood of it, maybe it was the inclusion of gay love which was innovative at the time?

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  2. I had a moment of panic reading your review because I couldn’t recall a single thing about this book – so I got worried that maybe I’d missed it out from my Booker Prize project. Fortunately the blog came to my rescue and I found my review. It shows I didn’t care for this book either and thought it weaker than Regeneration.

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    • I suspect that many of us are agreed on that.
      Have you read anything else by her? I used to buy all her books, but the last few have been duds IMO.

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  3. I read this pre-blog, and recall little about it – but I too remember finding Regeneration the strongest of the trilogy. I read a couple of her later novels, including the recent The Silence of the Girls, and found them less good.

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    • Yes, I thought The Silence of the Girls (even the title) was a case of jumping on a bandwagon and it was weak.
      OTOH I read Double Vision, Another World and Border Crossing and thought they were very good. Maybe I was a younger less demanding reader back then, I don’t know, but I thought she was topical, realistic and humane.

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