I should have written this review when I actually finished the book, but I've been a little busy and am only now getting round to it. Anyway, I liked The Ghost Road, but it felt a little incomplete to me. I try not to take extraneous issues into account when reviewing these books, but I can't help wondering if Barker won the Booker for the entire Regeneration Trilogy, of which this book is merely the final part, because for me The Ghost Road didn't really work as a stand-alone novel.
Set during the First World War, the book has two main narratives. The first follows young solider Billy Prior, who, having been treated in Craiglockhart Hospital for "shell shock" by W.H.R. Rivers, is heading back to the trenches of France. The second follows Rivers, as he works to heal the shattered men arriving in Craiglockhart from the trenches. The second narrative is itself split in two, with half focusing on Rivers’ interactions with his patients, and the other half focusing on reminiscences of his anthropological fieldwork in the Solomon Islands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, being an anthropologist, I found this narrative the most compelling part of the book. Barker uses Rivers’ ethnographic account of death and mourning on Eddystone Island to throw the slaughter of the First World War into even greater relief. Fundamentally, Barker creates a kind of identity between Rivers and his ethnographic other, Njiru. Both are healers, and both deal with the consequences of death, including ghosts, but whereas Njiru’s practice functioned to make Eddystone society whole again following a death, Rivers’ practice seeks to make individuals whole again, following which they will be sent back to the trenches where they will almost certainly be killed. Billy Prior is the manifestation of Rivers’ success: he is healed, he no longer feels fear, which allows him to function as a soldier and return to the trenches.
However, I’m not sure that this Eddystone narrative added anything new to the standard discourse of the barbarism of supposedly civilised nations during war. Also, I just didn’t feel that the characters stood on their own. Njiru, for example, is little more than a trope, and Billy seemed like a character we were already supposed to have engaged with and were expected to automatically fall in beside. I constantly felt the presence of the other volumes of the trilogy haunting this one. I’m sure that as a whole they're great, but I’m not sure that The Ghost Road works in isolation.