By Pat Barker
This novel sees out the last few months of the First World War through the eyes of Billy Prior, a young officer, and William Rivers, the psychiatrist who has treated Prior for shell shock. The present day is linear, and follows Prior waiting to be declared fit to return to the front. France, Prior is a contemporary of Wilfred Owen, who is a fellow officer and has also been treated by Rivers. The front and battles as experienced by Prior are those that were faced in real life by Owen. W H R Rivers is also a real person, and famous for treating soldiers with shell shock, amongst other specialities like anthropology.
in fact, not only do we dip back into Prior’s past briefly, we dip back into Rivers past as he recalls his time in the Torres Straits recording the lives and practices of the people who lived there. The memories of rivers run in parallel to the Prior’s story.
Now I looked at reviews of this novel and I came across an open piece from a newspaper where the author thought that Rivers’ stories were rambling and totally incongruent to the story. The person who wrote that was probably way better qualified than me to comment, but I felt that they were missing a few points.
Both the story of life at the front, and Rivers’ recollection of the Torres Straits centred around death. Dude. The novel is, after all, called The Ghost Road. Rivers came across as a sympathetic recorder of Island customs, but there was the sense to the European sensibilities that traditions of the islands around death were savage, and the people savages. I think Barker parallels this with the front, which is also savage, where decisions are made by savages (military hierarchy and governments). Barker questions so called sophisticated society.
it is the second Pat Barker novel I have read, and the writing is good. So easy to read despite grim war reading. I have posted previously about Toby’s Room.