I can't give this book a good review, but I can say some good things about it: it was interesting, it was well written, it was compelling, it was quick.
The book takes place towards the end of World War I, a fascinating time period both historically and culturally. Barker puts a lot of this together in this book: war, empire, sexuality--particularly homosexuality. I found it interesting. I also enjoyed the bits about real historical figures like Dr. Rivers, the poet Wilfred Owens, and Lewis Carrol.
Still, the book didn't do it for me. Tying death and sex together is an interesting concept, but it remains in the abstract for me. Barker's attempts to bring that abstract concept into gritty realism didn't make sense to me. Rather, her explicit depictions (nothing meant to titilate, merely to describe in a physical sort of way) offensive. I'm not easily offended either, having studied literature and sexuality in some detail. Then again, maybe it is just me.
The violence did not offend me however. In fact, the passages about the war were poignant in their grit. Still, when I was done, I kind of felt like I'd heard most of it before, in some other war book or movie. That does not make me dislike this book. In that way, its insights were important, but it didn't redeem the book for me to be retold something.
The seemingly original part of the book was Dr. Rivers's memories of his early days as a missionary doctor in the south seas being overlayed on his experiences as a doctor/psychiatrist during World War I. But even there, I felt like nothing new was being said. Still, that nothing new was being said very well. Barker is a gifted writer.
Unfortunately, I didn't do my research on the book before reading it and therefore didn't realize it was the last book of a trilogy. While I haven't gone back to read the first two books, they look better than The Ghost Road. I recommend reading them first and then going for The Ghost Road to complete the Booker challenge or to give an informed vote in the Best of the Booker ballot. I think I might have enjoyed this book more had I done that. As is, my rating is probably unfair, but here it is:
2 stars out of 5.