Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, about British troops in World War I, is justly famous. Regeneration, the first novel, was a Booker prize nominee, followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, which actually won the Booker in 1997. In the trilogy, which I started reading back in 2003, Barker looks at the war by focusing on the psychological aftermath of battle. The first book takes place primarily at Craiglockhart, the mental hospital where soldiers with shell-shock and mental illness were treated. The real-life doctor W.H.R. Rivers is a character, and so are the great wartime poets Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. These men’s experiences, along with the fictional character Billy Prior, build a picture of the war that is both brave and brutal: as we dig below the surface to discover the reason for their stammers, their nightmares, and their hallucinations, it seems an impossibly cruel task to send them back to the Western Front.
The Ghost Road comes back to Billy Prior on his fourth trip to the front. Billy, unlike most of the other men in the book, comes from a working-class background. He is bisexual and cynical and has asthma. All of these things are secrets he can reveal to some people and not to others. The only person he really trusts is Rivers, the doctor who began his healing process at Craiglockhart and who has in some sense become a father to him. Rivers is still working on shell-shock cases, still trying to make men fit to fight a war that is dragging to its miserable close in the autumn of 1918. When Prior returns to the front, the two men are separated, but they continue to think of each other as the book progresses: Prior, as he marches through the muddy disaster of France, and Rivers as he works with the results of that disaster.
The Ghost Road is less linear in some ways than the other two books in the Regeneration trilogy. Part of the book is written in the form of Prior’s journal, in which he reminisces about his own past and grimly tries not to wonder about an impossible future. In another part, Rivers comes down with the dangerous Spanish influenza, and, in the grip of a high fever, deliriously relives his own past as an anthropologist on a Melanesian island among headhunters. Barker weaves these stories together delicately: the headhunters are a tribe dying out because the right to make war has been taken from them, while Prior is in a whole society laid waste by war and trying to fumble its way to armistice. Is it our nature to kill each other? Is it our religion? If we talk about it, can we heal it, or must we blindly shock men into the capacity to kill again?
I’ve read a couple of other books by Pat Barker, and never been quite so impressed as I was by this trilogy. These books blew me away. The writing is so engaging that I could see what was happening, right before my eyes. I’m reviewing The Ghost Road here, but I’m recommending all three: poetry, murder, mud, sex, love, bayonets, cigarettes, autumn leaves.