Monday, October 17, 2011

Athena K's Review - The Ghost Road

See, this is exactly why I decided to read the Bookers.  I don't normally pick up a war book - in fact I usually run the other way.  I would never have chosen to read this book by perusing the library or even on recommendation from a friend.  And war novels are bad enough but WWI?  seriously?  Trenches, and new technology, and All Quiet on the Western Front and...? It happened before my grandparents were even born.  We spent about a week on it in high school history and it didn't interest me then.  I certainly didn't think it would captivate me now.

But it did.  And as apparently historically sourced as this novel was, it wasn't actually about war, but about life, and the fact that so many things we take as Either/Or are really points on one long continuum.  The novel first takes Sane/Insane.  But who is crazy and who is sane?  Is there even a clear line there?  Or even more provocatively (and sadly, too many people can't see past this one) what does it mean to be Straight/Gay? 

And how about Civilized/Uncivilized?  By far the most fascinating bits of this story were Dr. Rivers' flashbacks to the time he spent as an anthropologist in Melanesia in about 1908 - the British Empire was about to Christianize and "civilize" the islands northeast of the Australian continent, and Dr. Rivers got a glimpse of the end of their traditional (un)civilization.  And Pat Barker contrastes this traditional headhunting society with the total insanity of the European theatre of World War I just ten years later.  Her portrayal of this clash was beautiful, terrible, and so very real.

Or how about the continuum of Alive/Dead?  Njiru certainly sees it as a continuum, and at the end of the novel, Dr. Rivers sees it too.  When does Billy Prior, our other narrator, cross that boundary -- is there a definite boundary there to cross?  And the end of the book, just days before the end of the war,  we are faced with the falsity of the dichotomy of War/Peace.

Excellent, excellent novel, and I'm even tempted to go back and read the entire trilogy, of which this is only the last book.  Yes, of war novels.


  1. Thanks Athena - you've prompted me to give this another try as I must admit I didn't finish it back in 1995. Probably take me a while to get there but I will revisit.

  2. Oh, you MUST read the entire trilogy! The first book, Regeneration, was astounding. Some think Barker was awarded the Booker not so much for The Ghost Road as for the combined impact of the trilogy.