In the final chapter of her World War I saga, Pat Barker really turns the screws. You’ve become emotionally invested in several characters, while knowing that, since this story is about the war, it’s not going to end well. The Ghost Road, told in the waning, but most urgent, year of the War, really questions the notion of war, choosing to return to an almost-certain death, and the psychological traumas beyond war that can plague us.
William Rivers and Billy Prior are again major characters, while we have other minor characters floating in. Siegfried Sassoon is only mentioned in passing, but Wilfred Owen and Charles Manning are again peripheral figures. Sarah Lumb, Prior’s fiancée, again makes an appearance, while the investigatory plot Prior embarked on in The Eye in the Door, seems to have vanished. Nonetheless, several soldiers and Rivers are haunted by “ghosts” of the past–whether fallen comrades, bad memories, or even uncertain memories they can’t make sense of. There’s an interesting subplot of Rivers’ journey to a Pacific Island and learning a new language in order to study an indigenous tribe. Prior returns to France to fight at the front, putting off marrying Sarah until he can return. Sassoon and Owen return, as well.
With some explicit description about war injuries, Barker really questions the idea of valor in fighting and a glorious death. Particularly if the “glorious death” involves horrific wounds and a slow, agonizing wait to die alone on a field away from home. She de-romanticizes war and questions how we glorify fighting for something that seems silly or worthless in hindsight. I think the Regeneration Trilogy is powerful, if only for this idea (but it’s great writing and storytelling, on top of that!), and it’s worth reading from start to finish.