BOOK REVIEW / Trench trauma and jungle ghosts

The final part of Pat Barker's war trilogy explores a society with the lid off. By Harriet Paterson; The Ghost Road by Pat Barker Viking, pounds 15

This is the third part of Pat Barker's trilogy about the psychological effects of war, based on the experiences of the neurologist William Rivers who treated Siegfried Sassoon during the First World War. Sassoon doesn't appear in this book, although Wilfred Owen is shipped in for a cameo role; Barker returns instead to Rivers's fictional patient, Billy Prior.

The mental and emotional duress that war has inflicted on Prior move one stage further than events in the last book, The Eye in the Door: having coped with wounds, trench fever and a dual personality brought on by shell- shock, Prior now has to go back and fight. As an example of war trauma, he is a living lab experiment, a test-case for Rivers, who now watches to see how his therapy will hold up.

Prior is here to demonstrate widespread symptoms as well as individual problems: although homesick, he feels hopelessly alienated among civilians and returns to France with relief. He also has typical lost-youth syndrome - three tours to the front mean he has seen it all, done it all; he is ancient in comparison with the new recruits: "A generation lasted six months, less than that on the Somme, barely twelve weeks. He was this boy's great-grandfather."

So far this is familiar ground, but variation is provided by Rivers's other patients back at the hospital, who range right across the spectrum of nervous disorders. There's Moffet, who lost all movement in his legs at the first sound of the guns, and Wansbeck, who murdered a German prisoner and is now visited by his ghost together with the stench of decomposing flesh. To complicate Rivers's job, most of his patients also suffer from acute stiff upper lip with regard to the efficacy of psychotherapy - this is, after all, 80 years ago.

This is a potentially fascinating area, and one could read plenty more about these early theories and treatments; instead, Pat Barker spends a lot of time flashing back to Rivers's pre-war experience as an anthropologist living among headhunters. The fact that Rivers really did this does not automatically make these sequences congruous with the rest of the book, apart from the obvious parallel between Rivers and the local healer-witch- doctor. It all calls for a lot of emotional advance-and-retreat: once you are focused on the realities of trench-trauma it is difficult to find yourself suddenly in the middle of the bush inspecting tribal courtship rituals.

This said, Barker uses the primitive world as a comparison with what happens to a more "civilised" society once war has blown the lid off. The tribal people are better equipped to deal with instinctive forces, being quite at home with the ghosts which cause Rivers's patients so much distress. Prior, hardly the loveable hero, does his level best to reverse the civilising process, breaking one sexual taboo after another as extreme conditions push his sadism to the fore, but he remains too much of a Western man to stick a bayonet in without feeling squeamish.

The Ghost Road is refreshingly free from bogus "period" flavour, from farthing buns and cheery war songs. Facts and figures are kept at the minimum necessary to remind us that women under 30 can't vote or that homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment. Through the streetwise eyes of Billy Prior, the author presents a surprisingly unsentimental view of war. The sensationalist possibilities of violence are not over-exploited, yet there are harrowing moments. One may feel that the suffering of the First World War is well-known by now; Pat Barker's startling evocation of what it did to people shows why books on the subject still need to be written.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor