Central to this novel are two men divided by class and experience, but sharing a mutual respect and empathy. One is Lieutenant Billy Prior, cured of shell shock by famed psychologist Dr. William Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and determined to return to the front in France even as the war enters its final ferocious phase in the late summer of 1918. The other is Dr. Rivers himself, consumed by the medical challenge and moral dilemma of restoring men to health so that they can be sent back to the battlefields and almost certain death. Billy Prior is a working-class man on the rise, a "temporary gentleman," who inhabits a sexual, social, and moral no-man's-land. His sexual encounters with both women and men are tinged with a cynical fatalism that the war has engendered. Still, he is eager to join a fellow Craiglockhart "graduate," the poet Wilfred Owen, in France in time to participate in the great English offensive, the "one last push" intended to redeem all the shining heroism and senseless slaughter that has gone before.
Among the characters in this astonishing novel, which just won the United Kingdom's top literary award, the Booker Prize, is a physician, struggling to help shell-shocked British soldiers recover their sanity. Overwhelmed by their suffering, he finds himself fearing that the tales they tell him "would become one story, the voices blend into a single cry of pain." Set during the last days of World War I, The Ghost Road follows the efforts of several characters to come to terms with the horrific effects of the war on their lives and their souls. Lt. Billy Prior, a "temporary gentleman" elevated from the ranks of the working class by his battlefield commission, discovers that the only place he feels alive or at home is on the front. Hospitalized following his collapse, he fights stubbornly to get back to his troops, away from the seedy precincts of the home front, from a country that seems to him to be filled with "drifting, dispossessed people," a society in a condition "of absolute free-fall."
Ms. Barker, the author of several gritty novels about the modern British working class, including Union Street and The Century's Daughter, is an audacious writer. Ghost Road is the third volume in a trilogy about the British experience in World War I (Regeneration and The Eye in the Door are the two earlier volumes). The novels adroitly mingle historical characters with fictional creations: Dr. William Rivers, charged with rehabilitating shell-shocked soldiers, did exist. And while Billy Prior is invented, one of the fellow officers in Billy's regiment is Wilfred Owen, the extraordinary poet who died in the last major campaign of the war.
Although the literature on the war is vast, Ms. Barker's view of life on the front manages to be startling and convincing; she catches the awful "immobility, passivity and helplessness" of trench warfare, the "morose disgust" that came from "living in trenches that had bits of human bone sticking out of the walls," a world in which the stench of corruption is inescapable. It's as if she has reinvented the genre of the war novel, having dug down through dense layers of stereotypes and recovered something of the war's true horror. Billy Prior -- fatalistic, intelligent, isolated from everything but his experience of war -- is a remarkable creation. In her portraits of Billy and his fellow soldiers, Ms. Barker has recreated the singular experiences of individuals who reveal, in their particular stories of grief and horror, the war's true cost and tragedy.