The Ghost Road by Pat Barker is the final volume in her Regeneration trilogy. (For reviews of the first two see Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.) In this the story’s conclusion we follow Billy Prior as he prepares to go back to the final days of the fighting in World War I and Dr. William Rivers as he continues to treat soldier’s suffering from various forms of mental breakdown and dreams of the days he spent as an anthropologist studying a tribe of head hunters on Eddystone Island in the South Seas.
In The Ghost Road Ms. Barker continues to mix historical fact with fiction to tell her story. Billy Prior is a fictional character, but Dr. Rivers is a historical figure who really did spend time living with a tribe of headhunters. During his flashbacks we learn quite a lot about the lives and customs of the South Seas natives. They have been forced to abandon their headhunting customs by the British who now control the area, but they have done so reluctantly. After the death of their chief it is clear that they want to go on the traditional hunt and bring back skulls in tribute to their lost leader, but they cannot. They have been forced into “civilized” life.
We can’t help but contrast them with the soldiers in Billy Prior’s part of the novel. After serving in France, Billy Prior finds it difficult to function in civilian England. He believes the war is futile, that it’s final days are being stretched out so the diplomats can get better terms in the peace treaty, but he wants to go back to the fight, back to the life he led on the battlefield, more than anything. He cannot stand to be around civilians for long at all. Ms. Barker brings this home when she describes Billy’s reaction to hearing the phrase “go over the top” used by party goers to describe a drinking binge or an argument. The phrase comes from the soldiers who used it in reference to climbing out of the safety of their trenches and charging the enemy. A phrase that fills Billy Prior with dread on the battlefield is the newest slang and a source of laughter back home.
There must be hundreds of little things like this that infuriate soldiers returning home from battle. One of the best aspects of Ms. Barker’s books is how well she understands the effect words can have and how clear she makes it for the reader. In the final section of the book we follow the story of Billy Prior through a journal he keeps during breaks in the final days of the fight. He writes how certain words no longer mean anything. Words like patriotism, honor, courage. While other smaller words have taken on great weight:
But now I look round this cellar with the candles burning on the tables and our linked shadows leaping on the walls, and I realize there’s another group of words that still mean something. Little words that trip through sentences unregarded: us, them, we, they, here, there. These are the words of power, and long after we’re gone, they’ll lie about in the language, like the unexploded grenades in these fields, and any one of them’ll take your hand off.