Pat Barker: The Ghost Road

Having recently read The Siege of Krishnapur and The Conservationist (or in the latter case, almost read), I succumbed to temptation and decided to complete the Best of the Booker shortlist with Pat Barker’s 1995 winner The Ghost Road. Neither of the other two had surpassed the three I’d already read some years ago – Midnight’s Children, Oscar & Lucinda, and Disgrace – so I had high hopes. Friends recommended the Regeneration trilogy to which it belongs, as ‘powerful’ and ‘affecting’.

The Ghost Road

Now everything that follows comes sashed with a disclaimer: I read The Ghost Road without reading the first two books in the trilogy, Regeneration and The Eye in the Door. That might well render my opinion worthless, so feel free to skip straight to the comments below where everyone tells me just how wrong I am.

The book opens brilliantly, in the shell-shock ward at Craiglockhart hospital in 1918. Two characters from the earlier books meet there – Billy Prior, soldier and patient, and William Rivers, psychiatrist – and in the midst of death there is plenty of life. Some of this comes from real people (including Rivers himself) such as Wilfred Owen, and there are deft portraits of Siegfried Sassoon, from Prior’s viewpoint:

Owen has somehow managed to stick a portrait of Siegfried Sassoon to the wall of his [privy]. Sassoon in distinctly Byronic mode, I should say – not the Sassoon I remember, legging it down the main corridor at Craiglockhart with his golf-clubs on his back, hell-bent on getting out of the place as fast as possible.

– and of Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson), from River’s:

At dinner one evening Mr Dodgson had leant across to mother and said, ‘I l-l-l-love all ch-ch-ch-ch-”

‘Train won’t start,’ Charles had whispered.

‘Children, M-Mrs R-Rivers, as l-l-l-long as they’re g-g-g-girls.’

He had looked down the table at the two boys, and it had seemed to Rivers that the sheer force of his animosity had loosened his tongue.

Boys are a mistake.’

This touching on Carroll’s purported tastes – for which we’d have quite a different word now – is just the tip of a larger subject of sexual variations, from Prior’s experiences as a boy to his omnivorous sexuality in young adulthood. As a result the book is often much more – what would be the word of the time? – bawdy than we might expect from a sombre and traditional First World War novel: not to mention funnier. Prior thinks of Lizzie, a prostitute he used to frequent:

She’d told him about her regulars. One man came every month, turned a chair upside-down and shoved each one of the four legs in turn up his arse. Didn’t want her to do anything, she said. Just watch.

– Well, you know what a worry-guts I am. I keep thinking what’ll I do if he gets stuck?

– Saw the bloody leg off.

– Do you mind, that’s the only decent chair I’ve got.

This first part takes us through the first hundred pages, and if it had all been as good as this – with the vigorous characters in the shell-shock ward, and wonderful scenes like Prior and his girl’s attempts to evade her mother and, as they didn’t say back then, ‘get it on’ – I would have been very happy. But Barker stretches her concerns from this point and in my view damages the book as a result. The rest of the book is taken up largely with alternating chapters of Prior’s journal and Rivers’ memories of his anthropological and missionary work in the South Seas, where he encounters ‘primitive’ tribes with bloodthirsty rites. The intended parallels seemed too heavy-handed and obvious – conquest by force, sacrificing their best young men – and not particularly illuminating, with Rivers making trite observations like this:

He looked up, at the blue, empty sky, and realized that their view of his society was no more or less valid than his view of theirs.

Similarly, Prior matches him for bland platitudes when, among the mentally ill of Craiglockhart, he observes of the wider warfare, “We’re all mad here,” a shattering indictment of the poorly run campaigns of the First World War which I think I last saw expressed in Blackadder Goes Forth. All this is a shame, because the ending brings some power back to the book, but by then I felt it had devolved more or less into literary fiction by numbers – rather like my only other experience of Barker’s fiction, her 2007 novel Life Class.

In the end I was moved to wonder not only why The Ghost Road was on the Best of Booker shortlist, but why it had won the Prize in the first place. I wonder whether the judges at the time – and indeed those who drew up the Best of Booker shortlist – read it as a stand-alone novel or read the first two volumes along with it. My bold view is that it would be wrong to award a prize to a book based on the cumulative power it holds along with two earlier volumes. It removes the notion of a level playing field against the other titles under consideration. If a book is being considered for a single-book prize, then it must have excellence as a single book without any knowledge of its earlier parts. (That opens a can of worms, of course, about the extent to which all literature is indebted to its antecedents: can Ulysses be properly rated without The Odyssey? Or The Hours without Mrs Dalloway?) Or perhaps they did read it alone and still thought it the best novel of 1995/one of the best winners since 1969. In which case I must just quietly disagree.


  1. I find Pat Barker very hit and miss. I recall reading some of her books a long time ago – including Regeneration and Border Crossing and really quite liking them.

    But recently I’ve reading Life Class, which I found a bit limp and Double Vision which was appalling.

    I usually feel that the novels are a bit ambling and directionless, almost like she makes them up as she goes along. They feel like the work of someone with far less attention and recommendation.

  2. I think have a worse opinion of the novel than you, but for some of the same reasons. It was a compelling and quick read–I was never bogged down by slow prose. Also, it was affecting. I forgot I was reading sometimes and felt present.

    However, I found many of the insights unoriginal, even though interesting to read: the connection with life, death, and sex; the primitiveness of our own “advanced” culture; the psychological effects of the war; relationships where death is the only outcome. When I put the book down I thought, hmmm, I’ve seen that all before, and done better. Add to that the “bawdy” (though I think that is an understatement–I found some of it offensive though I wrote a masters thesis on sexuality and literature; my thesis is nothing to recommend me or my insights, but I did encounter a lot of stuff in the process and was rarely offended) parts, and my ambivalent attitude gave way to disrespect for the book and the author.

    So even though I enjoyed reading it, I felt bitter and disappointed after the fact, taken advantage of even–a relationship gone sour. Admittedly, I also did not read the first two books in the trilogy.

    By the way, I just found your blog Tuesday and have really enjoyed your insights.

  3. I read Regeneration and liked it but I was not really interested in reading more.

    I don’t know what is wrong with the Man Booker judges sometimes.

    I do agree with you that a novel should be stand-alone to be nominated.

    I also hated their 2006 choice, The Inheritance of Loss by
    Kiran Desai. The others in my book club agreed with me; it felt derivative, that the story had been told before.

  4. Me too Isabel, I only got about 30 pages into The Inheritance of Loss before deciding that life was too short.

    Jem, I’d heard that Double Vision wasn’t much cop – and was interested to see that in this new Penguin edition of The Ghost Road, it’s not even listed among her other books on the About the Author page, where they usually include the most recent ones/the ones from the same publisher.

    Trevor, thanks for your kind words. I hope to write about all of this year’s Booker longlist when the titles are announced on 29 July (I’ll have six weeks before the shortlist to read about twelve books which should just about fit into my usual reading pattern), so you’re very welcome to stick around for that.

    I must admit I didn’t find any of the sexual stuff in The Ghost Road offensive, though I can’t remember many of the details of the scenes in question now anyway. There was probably more gay sex than straight, wasn’t there, but so long as it’s not presented gratuitously, sensationally or freakishly I’ve no objection to either.

  5. Not read this, but I did read the first one in the trilogy about 10 years ago and can’t really remember much about it. It certainly didn’t make enough of an impression for me to read the other two books, and yet I know some people who absolutely love the series.

    Did you watch the Culture show the other night?? They asked a little village in Scotland to read all the best of the booker books to decide which one they liked best. Barker’s book didn’t fare too well. But the Farrell one had a lot of fans!

  6. Yes I did see that, kimbofo (meant to post about it here as the show was repeated tonight – oops!). Rushdie did well too, Gordimer was bottom I think, wasn’t she? Quite right too if you ask me! I was surprised Carey wasn’t better liked: God knows I’ve struggled with most of his books but I liked Oscar & Lucinda enough to read it twice, though admittedly both readings were over a decade ago and I’ve no idea how I would find it now. I was pleased too that the Farrell was so well-liked, even though I didn’t warm to it entirely. Can’t remember what they said about Coetzee.

  7. I generally have no object to the sex either, but I did think that Barker’s was gratuitous–at least in its detail. For me a good example of nongratuitous but somewhat explicit sex that others are offended by is in The Handmaid’s Tale. I felt the book would be less without it.

  8. Oh The Handmaid’s Tale – now Atwood is an author I cannot seem to get on with at all, but a book group I am in is reading The Handmaid’s Tale next month so I might have to try. I started reading it years ago but gave up fairly early on.

    Perhaps in The Ghost Road Barker is trying to depict the sexual life of the characters (or Prior anyway) in as much detail as she depicts the violence of war in the trilogy. (A bit of guesswork here as I haven’t read the other two books, but certainly her recent WW1 novel Life Class was pretty gruesome in places.) Just a thought. I would always find explicit violence much harder to take than explicit sex, either in book or film.

  9. Hi John, I just finished reviewing the last of the six shortlisted titles for the Best of the Booker, and I am curious about your choice (Tomorrow I’ll have posted my true choice for the best). If time permits you, I’d love to hear (read) your thoughts.

  10. Well Trevor, I voted for Coetzee’s Disgrace. I didn’t much enjoy any of the three ‘new’ ones I read this year – Gordimer, Barker, Farrell, though Farrell was best of that lot – and I remember enjoying all three of the others which I’d read years ago. However I extrapolated my bad experiences with every other Carey I’ve read to discount Oscar and Lucinda (not very logical but I didn’t have time to reread it), and do clearly remember that while I admired Midnight’s Children greatly, it was also a hell of a slog at times. I don’t however remember any quibbles in my enjoyment of Disgrace, so there you have it. I’d love to read it again soon actually. I suspect Midnight’s Children will win the popular vote.

    I’ll not be around for the next week but I look forward to reading about your choice in due course.

  11. I absolutely despised this novel and the earlier mentioned Handmaid’s Tale. Although, maybe I am being too harsh on The Ghost Road. It was an engaging read and flowed smoothly for me, but some of the explicit sexual detail was unnecessary. I had to read this book in two days and was able to, but the sexual content made me want to put it down. I’m not a prude, but at some point it is just a bit too much. Now I have to write up a 1 page precis of it. Shouldn’t be too difficult, this book gave me a lot to talk about. Loaded with ethical issues. I liked the use of historical figures like Wilfred Owen. I read one of his poems for a poetry unit and it was both easy to understand and interesting. I was pleased to see Owen pop up in more than just the classroom.

  12. Hi Alex, thanks for your comment. You’ll see that Trevor above (in a comment written before he had his own blog!) agrees with you about the explicit sex. I must confess I don’t remember it particularly, though no doubt that’s partly because of my hardened upbringing on the far more frank comings and goings of Alan Hollinghurst. Do you think you’d have been so put off if the sex had been exclusively heterosexual?

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