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.