Death’s Gray Land

The Ghost Road

by Pat Barker
Dutton/A William Abrahams Book, 278 pp., $21.95


by Pat Barker
Plume, 252 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Eye in the Door

by Pat Barker
Plume, 280 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Pat Barker
Pat Barker; drawing by David Levine

Until Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first book of her World War I trilogy, appeared in 1991, she was modestly respected for her novels of life in the urban wastelands of northern England, harsh and knowledgeable and showing a wonderful ear for the local idiom. But in the trilogy—Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and now The Ghost Road—she found a subject that energized her work, sending it in a whole range of new directions, and making her one of the most deserving winners of the prestigious Booker fiction prize in recent years. The core of the subject was the meetings that took place in 1917 between Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the psychiatrist/anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers, recorded in several autobiographies. But she has branched out imaginatively around this factual core in a number of ways. Courage and its limits, love between males both Platonic and erotic, the nature of therapeutic healing, and—because of the appalling nature of that particular war—the brutality of dying and the tenuousness of any counterbalance to it, the themes unfold gradually throughout the three books.

Robert Graves the poet is well known, the war poet Wilfred Owen (killed in the trenches in 1918) less so, and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived to write both poetry and autobiography through the Twenties and Thirties, is temporarily out of fashion and probably out of print. It is W.H.R. Rivers, an extraordinarily multi-talented man, who is now the least known—partly because of fashions in psychiatry and anthropology, partly because of his own retiring character. In one sense he was the typical bachelor Cambridge don, presumed homosexual by inclination at least; from another aspect he was an intellectual adventurer, who jumped from medicine to psychiatry to anthropology, earned respect and honors, and died too early, just as he was about to stand for Parliament as Labour candidate. He was loved. Sassoon wrote that “there was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at once and seemed to know all about me”; and Graves, of Rivers’s study room in Cambridge, “For that was the place I longed to be/And past all hope where the kind lamp shone.” Throughout the three novels Rivers, surrounded in the war hospitals he works in by broken minds and obscenely smashed bodies, slowly develops as a kind of unspectacular war hero himself, struggling to mend men and, against his own inclinations, to fit them to go back for more maiming and probable death.

Regeneration was the book that focused particularly on the relationship between Sassoon and Graves, and the two succeeding ones have gone on from there. Sassoon appears again in the second novel, and some of Barker’s material is based on his writings about the war. Jewish and homosexual, a member of a well-to-do family that originally came from Persia and Bombay, he was something of an outsider despite being brought up…

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