Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

The Ghost Road

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Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. (p 46)

Everyone touched wood, crossed fingers, groped for lucky charms: all the small protective devises of men who have no control over their own fate. (p 147)

Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of WW1 novels have been sitting in my reading pile for years, but always with other books on top of them. The wait has given me the chance to read them in relatively quick succession, interspersed with works by some of the real-life people who feature in them.

The Ghost Road is the last in the trilogy. Regeneration was set in Edinburgh at Craiglockhart Hospital, The Eye in the Door in London and northern England. The Ghost Road moves from London to the Western Front in the last months of the war, with psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr William Rivers and the fictional Billy Prior again in prominent roles. Poet Wilfred Owen (another Craiglockhart patient) returns in a cameo.

I suppose one could read each book in the trilogy as a standalone novel. Barker examines many of the same themes from different angles in each one. But some of the nuances would be lost. I would recommend reading the books in order, given the recurring characters and progression of the war. While The Ghost Road won the Booker Prize, one might say that the honour is for the cumulative strength of the three.

The Ghost Road returns again to themes of class, courage, gender, sanity and sexuality. It explores the boundaries of cognitive dissonance between the ideals and realities of war.

What one should be asking is whether an ideal becomes invalid because the people who hold it are betrayed. (p 102)

We learn more about Rivers, as his fevered mind recollects his experiences as an anthropologist in Melanesia. The effects of British imperial values imposed to curtail the head hunting tribes there are juxtaposed with the effects of a war waged by those same imperial powers sending the young and powerless to slaughter. We question the meaning of a “civilized” society.

‘You say we kill the Beast,’ Owen said slowly. ‘I say we fight because men lost their bearings in the night.’ (p 144)

Throughout the trilogy, symptoms of hysteria in women manifest themselves as shell shock in the soldiers. (We understand this better now as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD).

Rivers continues to be troubled with the real purpose of his psychiatric work: to make men better so they can go back to fight and be killed. Those who go back are the real test cases of whether the therapy works. An ethical endeavour? A futile one?

We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think – at least not beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive. (p 200)


Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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