Both Sides

Lorna Sage

  • The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
    Viking, 196 pp, £15.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 670 85489 1

The present novel completes Pat Barker’s First World War trilogy. It ends just before the war itself ends, with the attempted crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal in which Wilfred Owen was killed. You can read it without having read Regeneration or The Eye in the Door, because these are novels that cover the same ground again, and again, like the battles their characters replay in memory and nightmares. This produces a powerfully ironic sense of imprisonment in the moment. Barker’s strategy is pointedly different from that of most historical novels exploring the processes of change. Sequence and progress and narrative line have largely given way here to a palimpsest history. You cut rapidly from document to dream to memory to dialogue. Historical figures – Owen, Graves, Sassoon, the psychologist Rivers – mingle with invented ones like Prior, the working-class officer who is a kind of exemplary figure, with what one might call a palimpsest personality. The effect is of spread, not sequence. Nonetheless, revisiting the same material from book to book is a compulsive experience. In The Ghost Road the return to the front line gathers intensity from the fact that we’ve been here so often before in Rivers’s patients’ recovered memories of its horrors.

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