Barker Pat

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.

Pat Barker: Life Class

Pat Barker is one of those writers I’ve been aware of for ages – well, since she won the Booker Prize in 1995 with The Ghost Road, the final volume in her First World War trilogy – without ever getting up the interest to sit down and read her. Not that that puts her in an exclusive club, for we all have must-read writers we never quite get around to. So when she returned to the Great War with her new novel Life Class, and it was received as a return to form in the press, and – crucially – the publishers gave it a nice retro cover which put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s wonderful The Welsh Girl – well, I finally fell.

And it is an assured performance, clearly the work of a writer who – for want of a better way of putting it – knows what she’s doing. Life Class brings together art and war, idealism and realism, and sets them in conflict with a cast of plausible characters. In 1914, Paul Tarrant is a young working-class man studying to become a painter, but feels he lacks the talent of his friends Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Messy love affairs follow, and when war breaks out Paul joins the Belgian Red Cross. This takes us to halfway through the book, but the cover flap gives all this away and more, so don’t write in.

The scenes in the London art world before the war are firmly drawn but Barker seems to be entering her element when the blood starts flowing. She never flinches at grisly description (“Shrapnel had come through from the back and severed the penis at the base”) and brings an appropriately visual sense to the occasional moments of drama:

But even as she spoke there was another crash and everything on the table did a little jump in the air. The light bulb was swinging at the end of its flex, sending shadows from side to side. All the people in the room seemed to be clinging from the clapper of a bell. The electric light flickered again, only it was more than a flicker now. A long, fierce, edge-of-darkness buzzing and then the lights went out. The candles, which were really no more than ornaments, wobbled but kept going, giving just enough light to show people’s faces and hands. What Elinor remembered afterwards was the inertia. Nobody moved. They couldn’t believe it had happened; they didn’t want to abandon their nice meals and their bottles of wine, and so they all just sat there, staring at each other, until another thud, closer, brought with it the sound of breaking glass.

The chapters become more cumulatively more powerful, and the differing status levels of the characters bring out interesting ideas about whether great times of crisis render art frivolous, or all the more necessary (and can even improve it). And there is an unsentimental handling of love.

However the book retains a reserve or calmness for much of its length which seems not entirely apt for the passions and devastations under consideration. It’s the sort of read which will polarise opinion – some will think its controlled observation of history and solid handling of ‘issues’ to be the very essence of proper literature; others will find it old-fashioned and ponderous, a sort of literature-by-numbers. I fell somewhere in the middle. Amid all the steady prose there is the occasional clanger of a phrase which jolted me out of the story. “You know how a poppy looks when you peel the outer green casing back too early?” Well. No.