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The Ghost Road (1996)

The Ghost Road (1996)

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4.11 of 5 Votes: 4
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0452276721 (ISBN13: 9780452276727)
a william abrahams book/plume

About book The Ghost Road (1996)

“The Ghost Road,” winner of the 1995 Booker Prize, concludes the Regeneration Trilogy, throughout which psychologically wounded soldiers of the Great War are encouraged to unearth their repressed trauma and to remember terrible things. “Stop the repression, please,” whispers the kindly Dr. William Rivers, who believes that the path to healing lies in recognizing, confronting, and excavating the buried truth. The war is heading for its violent and spastic conclusion after four years of trench warfare. “The Ghost Road” is not for the squeamish nor for those who ask nothing from literature other than that it entertain them. The experience of reading this trilogy will be like a long session with a probing psychiatrist, and, sometimes, it will be like a dentist trying to extract your teeth without procaine. But it’s for your own good, and you know it. So you submit. The Structure. The chapters alternate between those devoted to Dr. Rivers (factual) and Lt. Billy Prior (fictional). The sections devoted to Dr. Rivers consist primarily of his fever-induced, hallucinogenic dreams about his previous work among the primitive head-hunters of Melanesia (the chain of islands in the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomons). Meanwhile, the sections devoted to Lieutenant Billy Prior consist primarily of Billy’s journal entries after he voluntarily returns to combat duty with his friend, real-life poet Wilfred Owen.The Characters.W.H.R. Rivers- We know from the first two books that Rivers stammers and that he has no sensory memory, which are the very same afflictions shared by many of his patients. Indeed, he can only access his visual memory when he dreams or has a fever. After Rivers contracts the Spanish Influenza, he endures a firestorm of fever-dreams that open up his psyche to himself. Physician, heal thyself.Why does he stammer? What obliterated his memory? We suspect that these disabilities are associated with child abuse, and we are not at all reassured by Rivers, who repeatedly informs us, throughout the trilogy, that it need be nothing dramatic. Small children, he says, are not like adults, and what terrifies them may seem trivial to us. Perhaps the fever-dreams will reveal whether the cause of his affliction was trivial or catastrophic. He vividly dreams about his trip twenty years earlier to Eddystone Island in the Torres Strait between Queensland, Australia, and New Guinea.. There he met a witch doctor named Njiru. The islanders, believe that illness is caused by evil spirits. To them the language of introspection is unavailable, so Njiru enacts ritual drama to trick people into believing that evil spirits have left them. Rivers later employs some of these same techniques at Craiglockhart War Hospital.The climax of his dream occurs at the skull houses of Pa Nu Gundu– a burial ground for chiefs, warriors, and sacrificial victims. It houses thousands of skulls, including those of children sacrificed to war gods. (Abraham sacrificing a compliant Isaac is a motif throughout the trilogy.) Bats hang in the skull cave by the hundreds of thousands, resembling “little sooty stalactites.” Rivers stands at the skull cave mouth when it disgorges these bats, which flee like the spirits of ghosts. After the bat exodus, Rivers can now see all the pared-off, naked, and unshelled skulls– previously hidden by bats.Lest we sentimentalize, we should know that this primitive society loved head-hunting and universally approved of the defloration of thirteen-year-old girls. The colonial administrators abolished head-hunting, but, most surprising, the unintended consequence of the humanitarian ban was to cause the lethargy and listlessness of the people, who no longer have the will to reproduce in numbers necessary to replenish the population. Rivers’ conclusion: the people were perishing from the absence of war. Head hunting was tremendous fun, and, without it, life lost all its zest. This insight leads us to Billy. Billy Prior– Billy likes “going over the top” (i.e, over the top of the trench and on the attack), which Billy describes as “sexy.” He enjoys the war. He feels alive. (Like that main character of the film “The Hurtlocker,” Billy buzzes on the adrenaline produced by battle, and he feels dead at home among glib civilians.) Even so, Billy has a very clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the war. He believes that the war is not a conspiracy; it’s a self-perpetuating system: nobody benefits from it; nobody controls it; and nobody knows how to stop it. Unlike Rivers, who thinks that suppressed memory stores up trouble for the future, Billy says, “ too bad.” Refusing to think is the only way he can survive. He feels too close to death to make a fuss. Billy, like the islanders, sees ghosts everywhere. “Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them.” So he advises us to economize our grief, as, single-file, we march along following the pied piper down the ghost road. To Billy and his comrade, real life poet Wilfred Owen, the ghost road leads to Sambre-Oise Canal, during the last few days of the war. My Conclusion.We know that the end of the war wasn’t the end of the suffering. The Spanish Influenza– like the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse– will kill more people world-wide than did the war itself. Twenty years later, another generation would be sacrificed to the gods of nationalism. They still find war debris in France nearly one-hundred years after the cataclysm of World War I. It was a war of artillery and mud. The shells exploded and created huge craters in which the corpses were flung, covered, re-exploded, and re-buried. Unexploded ordnance mixed with dirt, skulls, shrapnel, bullets, mess kits, boots, and bones. The soil is exceedingly rich. It smells of humus, decay, and death– the smell of life.Like a modern farmer in France stumbling across a skull, we unearth bones in books like this that remind us of those we have already lost and where we too shall be. I am a reader. I need books like this to help me process this universal predicament in which we find ourselves. I’m not any happier. But I am glad that I read it.“Now all roads lead to FranceAnd heavy is the treadOf the living; but the deadReturning lightly dance.”– “Roads”(the epigraph of Ghost Road), by Edward Thomas Links to my Reviews of this Trilogy:Book 1: Regeneration 2: Eye in the Door 3: Ghost Road (Pulitzer Prize Winner) written April 3, 2012

Ok. Where to begin? Let me start by saying that this book wasn't horrible. I didn't absolutely hate it, but as you can probably tell from the 2/10 rating, I didn't really like it either.The thing is, when I read the synopsis on the back, I was really excited about this book. It's one that I have to study for my final essay for uni, but beyond that, I actually really wanted to read it. The story sounded really interesting, and exactly like the kind of thing I thought I would enjoy. Then I started reading it, and although I was getting through it pretty quickly. I just wasn't enjoying it.One of my major issues with this book, was that I never really felt like I got to know the characters. Now, I'm well aware that this could very well be because it's the third in a series, and because this book was assigned to me for uni, I hadn't read, or heard of, the others. So I wasn't familiar with the story or the characters. However, I felt like, since this particular book was a set text and the other two weren't required reading, that I should be able to read this as a standalone, and the thing is, it was kind of written like one.Everything was introduced, and laid out as if it were a standalone novel. I just didn't really feel as thought I knew the characters.There were moments that I did like. The deeper looks into wartime life, and the effects of war on those who survived. There were some passages that were really interesting and held my attention.On the whole though, I found myself having to force myself to keep reading, and it's not because the writing style was bad, it was written well, just for me, I didn't enjoy the story.

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What becomes of us when all we know is death and killing, and that is taken away?If that is the question being asked, the answer is not forthcoming. The book ends just before the war does, so we never get to see how any surviving characters would reintegrate into civilian life. From their worries, their neuroses, and what the experiences of warfare have done to them, the answer appears to be "not well." If the experiences of Rivers among the headhunters are instructive, particularly not well.Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
—Megan Baxter

I saw the ending coming, which perhaps made this a little less gripping than the first two books in the trilogy. There is a certain sense of inevitability to it which lessens the tension—though I suppose it's fitting, given the subject matter and the protagonists' characters. The prose is as lucid and vivid as ever, beautifully constructed, and I was very impressed with how skilfully Barker drew parallels between the collapse of the long nineteenth century and the decay of the Melanesian headhunter societies which Rivers had studied. It's subtly done, but I think proves a very effective comparison, and a very thought-provoking one. Overall, it's one of the most compelling trilogies I've ever read, and I would highly, highly recommend it.

See, this is exactly why I decided to read the Bookers. I don't normally pick up a war book - in fact I usually run the other way. I would never have chosen to read this book by perusing the library or even on recommendation from a friend. And war novels are bad enough but WWI? seriously? Trenches, and new technology, and All Quiet on the Western Front and...? It happened before my grandparents were even born. We spent about a week on it in high school history and it didn't interest me then. I certainly didn't think it would captivate me now.But it did. And as apparently historically sourced as this novel was, it wasn't actually about war, but about life, and the fact that so many things we take as Either/Or are really points on one long continuum. The novel first takes Sane/Insane. But who is crazy and who is sane? Is there even a clear line there? Or even more provocatively (and sadly, too many people can't see past this one) what does it mean to be Straight/Gay? And how about Civilized/Uncivilized? By far the most fascinating bits of this story were Dr. Rivers' flashbacks to the time he spent as an anthropologist in Melanesia in about 1908 - the British Empire was about to Christianize and "civilize" the islands northeast of the Australian continent, and Dr. Rivers got a glimpse of the end of their traditional (un)civilization. And Pat Barker contrastes this traditional headhunting society with the total insanity of the European theatre of World War I just ten years later. Her portrayal of this clash was beautiful, terrible, and so very real.Or how about the continuum of Alive/Dead? Njiru certainly sees it as a continuum, and at the end of the novel, Dr. Rivers sees it too. When does Billy Prior, our other narrator, cross that boundary -- is there a definite boundary there to cross? And the end of the book, just days before the end of the war, we are faced with the falsity of the dichotomy of War/Peace.Excellent, excellent novel, and I'm even tempted to go back and read the entire trilogy, of which this is only the last book. Yes, of war novels.
—Athena Kennedy

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