#cbr10bingo This is the End
The Ghost Road is the third and final volume in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Set during WWI in England, the trilogy tells the story of both real and fictional characters trying to make sense of a senseless war. The first book focused on the patients at Craiglockhart Hospital, an asylum for soldiers suffering from shell shock and being treated so as to be sent back to the front. Book two centered on the fictional character Billy Prior, a soldier recovering from both physical and psychological injury in an England in the throes of raging homophobia and unfettered jingoism. In this final volume, Billy gets his wish to return to France and his doctor, William Rivers, confronts his own past while doing his best to help the fragile and broken men under his care.
The Ghost Road begins during the summer of 1918. Billy Prior, despite his asthma and psychological record (having suffered episodes of fugue state), is pushing hard to be allowed to return to fighting at the front. Billy could easily use connections to get a good desk job in England and be near his fiancé Sarah, but he refuses to do so, not because of patriotism or duty but because he doesn’t want to be like “them.” In the previous novels, Billy’s disdain for the upper classes and their privilege is clear, even though he has worked hard to make his way upward in the world. In the end, he, like many other soldiers, feels disconnected from from civilian life and despite the horrors of the front, that is where he feels he must go. Meanwhile, Dr. Rivers works at the hospital and operates a private therapy practice out of his residence. In the previous novels, Barker showed Rivers’ gradual shift from being certain that his patients’ success involved being able to return to the front to the realization that sending them back there perpetuates a vicious cycle with devastating consequences. In The Ghost Road, Rivers contracts influenza and in his fevered state, begins to recall events from his past, many of which have parallels to events in his present.
While Barkers’ previous novels presented a picture of the general environment in England during the war — with special attention given to attitudes toward mental illness, pacifism, homosexuality — this final volume is more introspective. Most of the narration comes from Prior’s thoughts and his personal journal at the front as well as from Rivers’ recollections of childhood and of his research trip to Eddystone on the island Vao when he was a young anthropologist in the making. At Eddystone, Rivers got to know Njiru, a healer who has much in common with Rivers. Both men are single, respected for their knowledge, the sons of important men with proud histories, and witnesses to a society or culture in decline. As Barker has Rivers recall witnessing Njiru and the islanders experience the death of an important man and the ritualized mourning that involves skull houses and talking to spirits, Prior records his own witness of the savagery of warfare, of being surrounded by corpses and being haunted by thoughts of the friends who have died. Barkers’ juxtaposition of these events from Rivers’ past and Prior’s present is startling and supports the idea voiced by Rivers in each of the three volumes that there is not such a big difference between the headhunting tribes of Vao and the “civilized” people of Western Europe who are using gas and machine guns to kill thousands upon thousands for no good reason.
The character of William Rivers, a real man who really conducted studies in Eddystone and really treated Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, is exceeding well drawn in these novels, and it is important that he should be since he stands in for us. Rivers was an observer and reporter of another culture in Eddystone and during WWI. He did not serve as a soldier and could only learn what the war experience was like from questioning his patients, which is something he also did as an anthropologist. Njiru and Billy Prior have a respect for him even though both men generally resent the intrusion of outsiders. Rivers allows himself to be changed by his experiences and allows himself to remember things about his past that he had repressed, much like his patients. Regeneration, healing and moving forward, requires a painful reckoning such as this whether we are talking about individuals or entire societies. The Regeneration trilogy is beautifully written and thought provoking. Recommended for those interested in reading about WWI, anti-war literature and non-conformity.