In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Both SidesLorna Sage

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
The Ghost Road 
by Pat Barker.
Viking, 196 pp., £15, September 1995, 0 670 85489 1
Show More
Show More

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.

Rivers’s methods as a psychologist, probing the memory, bringing the past back, have an obvious affinity with Barker’s methods as a novelist – which is doubtless why she picked him out for a central role. It’s Rivers who speculates that the reason the war has produced in men the hysterical symptoms thought to belong to women is the enforced passivity of mechanised, trench warfare. Barker also sees Rivers, with his stammer and his own damaged memory, as someone who can turn the doctor-patient hierarchy back on itself, turn the tables. Rivers was himself changed and divided by the ‘neurasthenic’ men he set out to make whole. In this novel, helped out by fever and Spanish flu, he is recovering his own memories of his pre-war expedition to the Solomon Islands – when he realised for a dizzy moment, then promptly forgot, that cultural standards were all relative. He saw Europe and European assumptions from the ‘wrong’ side. In Regeneration he recaptured that insight for the first time – ‘a moment of the most amazing freedom ... we weren’t the measure of all things ... there was no measure.’ And in this novel it’s replayed: ‘the whole frame of social and moral rules that keeps individuals imprisoned – and sane – collapsed, and for a moment he was in the same position as these drifting, dispossessed people. A condition of absolute free fall.’ This is how the palimpsest effect works, recalling and repeating such ‘moments’, bringing far-flung and scattered materials into a level present-tense focus.

In The Ghost Road Barker, a note tells us, is using material from Rivers’s unpublished notebooks on the Solomons – case-histories from the other side of the world. Rivers’s mental homelessness is, it turns out, what makes him such a good therapist – ‘his power over people, the power to heal, if you like, springs directly from some wound or deformity in him.’ These words come from an invented document – Billy Prior’s journal of his return to the Front – which is intercut and juxtaposed with the accounts of the doomed Solomon Islanders. Fact and fiction collude with one another. Prior, indeed, has now openly become what he quietly was all along, the author’s surrogate. Sassoon, Graves, Owen, can’t say for her what she wants, by definition, since what she wants is the point of view of those whose words didn’t get into print. Prior is on both sides of nearly everything: working-class but an officer, bisexual, and sick-but-well, since living such divisions is the most honest option. Wilfred Owen is glimpsed out of the corner of Prior’s eye. Sassoon and Graves, who can live to tell the tale, have been left behind. Solomon Islanders and unhistoric soldiers acquire a borrowed reality by existing in the same plane of vision as those ‘real’ people. Barker has often written, and does again here, about class conflict. But it’s her assault on the class distinction between real and unreal that’s most striking and disconcerting. Superficially, the effect is ‘realistic’. Actually, though, there’s a more insidious suggestion of creeping unreality which is almost gothic, certainly uncanny. Prior is distrusted by both his brother officers and his old radical friends, one of whom, in The Eye in the Door, accuses him (probably rightly, we never quite know) of betraying him to the authorities: ‘It strikes me you’d be a bloody good recruit, for them ... Officers’ mess one night, back streets of Salford the next. Equally at home or ... equally not at home, in both.’ Prior is a kind of class-traitor, but he’s also from another angle, in his element, a native of no man’s land:

One of the ways in which he felt different from his brother officers, one of the many, was that their England was a pastoral place: fields, streams, wooded valleys ... They couldn’t grasp that for him, and for the vast majority of the men, the Front, with its mechanisation, its reduction of the individual to a cog in the machine, its blasted landscape, was not a contrast with the life they’d known at home in Birmingham or Manchester ... but a nightmarish culmination. Equally at home in either.

Prior’s ability to step outside himself this way sometimes slips over into full-blown alienation, Jekyll-and-Hyde style. But that doubleness is not Barker’s point. It wasn’t really Robert Louis Stevenson’s either, perhaps – for poor old Jekyll speculates that the real horror he’s discovered is not that he is two, but that he is legion, many, the anonymous masses are living inside him. Ugh! This is what Barker wants Prior to be, the one and the many.

In other words, she makes use of his equivocal status – a fictional character rubbing shoulders with real, historical people – to rub in a bitter message about the invisibility of most people’s lives and deaths. Rivers’s Solomon Islanders were perfectly real, but nothing more is known of them than what he chose to record (and never got around to publishing). His Melanesian opposite number, the witch doctor and shaman Njiru, who foresees the death of his beliefs, tells Rivers his secrets so that they can be carried off in words, and survive. The first-person written account that Prior is given in The Ghost Road had to be invented, because none of the natives of no man’s land wrote about it in this spirit. Prior is her go-between, bridging fiction and non-fiction, the individual and the masses, the living and the dead. Like Jekyll he secretes multitudes, he is forever decomposing as a character, and that is why he is at the last only ‘at home’ at the Front.

Another officer, Manning, describes him as ‘neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. Socially. Sexually too.’ Manning should know – he is one of Prior’s pick-ups, a middle-class paterfamilias who just happens to have this masochistic thing about working-class men on the side. Prior lives with many more of his selves than men such as Manning can manage, and this means (again echoes of Stevenson) that he presages the death of a certain kind of solid individual. Not that he writes in a stream of consciousness, or psychobabble, or anything like that; his manner is rather stoic and ‘factual’. But we’re meant, I think, to understand that this sanity in the midst of the war’s insanity is a sign of Prior’s disintegration. He has left behind him the other story that might have put him back together: his love for Sarah, the prospect of children. Instead in this novel his sexual encounters – just as graphically and exactly and lovingly described as those with Sarah – are casual and anonymous. There’s an odd and telling thread of sexual imagery that captures the effect. Sarah’s mother in a fit of folk wisdom early on warned her that she should be harder to get, because promiscuity in women disgusts men. ‘No man likes to think he’s sliding in on another’s leavings.’ But this, it turns out, is just what Prior does like to think. In Scarborough, waiting to embark, he goes home with a prostitute, and finds himself lying in a wet patch on the bed:

Dotted here and there on the sheet were tiny coils of pubic hair. He wondered whose spunk he was lying in, whether he knew him, how carefully she’d washed afterwards. He groped in his mind for the appropriate feeling of disgust, and found excitement instead, no, more than that, the sober certainty of power.

    All the men who’d passed through, passed through Scarborough, through her, on their way to the Front ... And how many of them dead?

This gives an additional frisson of suggestion to the title. The ghost road of wartime sex doesn’t – as Prior’s relation with Sarah might have done, in another world – enhance and fix your sense of who you are. Instead it is yet another route to dissolution. Later on Prior sodomises an available youth in recaptured territory, and savours the sense that German soldiers have been there before.

Prior’s bisexuality is, he’s come to realise, his family heritage, the result in part of his identification with his mother’s ambitions for him, and his rejection of his violent father. His father lives on in him, too, though, and it’s tempting to imagine that somehow he has reconciled them in himself. But that is not what Barker thinks happens.

Obviously his present attempt to understand his parents’ marriage was more mature, more adult, more perceptive ... it was also a lie: a way of claiming to be ‘above the cattle’. And he was not above it, he was its product. He and She – elemental forces, almost devoid of personal characteristics – clawed each other in every cell of his body, and would do so until he died.

Putting yourself together (‘more mature, more adult’) is in this context a kind of offence against the others. Rivers’s doubts about his own work in ‘curing’ neurasthenic casualties of the war run along the same lines. In persuading the mute to speak he’s really silencing their protests. This seems to connect, for Barker, with the need to invent the disintegrated character of Prior: to have a figure who speaks in fiction, but didn’t in fact, the kind of character born of the war, and largely lost and denied at its end. Speaking through Prior you call up ghosts, rather than exorcising them as psychiatry tried to do.

Death isn’t final in the way it’s usually made out to be. The novels dwell in memorably terrible detail on bodily mutilation (there’s a chilling continuity between the tone in which sexual encounters are described, and that employed for bodies blown apart). In one flashback there’s a bizarre and telling scene in which soldiers inured to death, and to the company of the dead, find themselves in a churchyard that’s been shelled, so that bodies in the vaults are exposed. They find these bodies eerily fascinating – ‘as if these people were really dead, and the corpses by the road weren’t. Any more than we were really alive.’ Those reborn in the war feel, it’s suggested, unable ever to return home – whether because they expect to be killed in the next battle, or because to go back will mean erasing what they knew. ‘We’ve all been home on leave and found home so foreign that we couldn’t fit in.’ The last and most strange permutation of Prior as fiction is Prior as ghost, the voice of the dead. The Solomon Islanders, Rivers recalls, were familiar with ghosts, they thought of the moribund as already dead, and of the dead as still in some ways living – and this is very much the territory this concluding book of the trilogy covers, eroding the boundary between death and life.

Indeed there’s a real haunting to prove it. You realise how very misleading Barker’s documentary strategy can be. She looks as though she’s modestly immersing herself in the sources, whereas actually she is using them as a point of departure, to mark the boundaries she’ll transgress. Though she hides her own narrative voice, the use of echoes and repetitions is ruthless and savagely consistent. She is one of fiction’s most dedicated levellers – not the one but the many, and the many in one. (This is why – though you can indeed read each novel separately – you need all three to get the full effect.) There is a kind of horror or obscenity lurking in the way she breeds facts with fictions, rather like the scene in The Ghost Road where Prior, watching his men undress to bathe, is reminded of one of his favourite fantasies, ‘being fully dressed with a naked lover’: ‘what I feel (apart from the obvious) is a great tenderness – the sort of tenderness that depends on being more powerful, and that is really, I suppose, just the acceptable face of sadism.’ Barker suggests that what makes Rivers a healer is his own deformity; his Solomon Islands opposite number actually has a hump. Prior is qualified for his role precisely by his lack of moral coherence. He’s a way of displacing the power of hindsight, and the authorial power of the overview – a way of dissolving the one of the writer into the many of the written-about, in the end. But it’s nothing to do with passivity, or reverence for the traditional real.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.