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Craiglockhart War Hospital was known for housing some of the best British World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen, a minor character in Pat Barker’s excellent and unusual war novel “The Ghost Road”. The Booker Prize winning author wrote two prior World War I novels before The Ghost Road, and I am inclined to read both Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.

Part a psychological study of the victims of gas, shell-shock, and what today would be considered PTSD, the novel is narrated by the historical doctor W. H.R. Rivers who treated patients at Craiglockhart, and Billy Prior, a bisexual officer, addicted to the War. Prior has relationships with Rivers and others during this closeted period which reflects the commonality of  the experience, even as he is engaged. The author reflects his involuntary revulsion when having sex with his fiancee, he sees in her face the face of a bosce he targeted.

The unusual aspect of this novel, is that Rivers had conducted an anthropological study of the headhunters of Melanesia prior to the war, and has flashbacks to these experiences as he treats soldiers on the ward. The shaman of the tribe, Njiru, is believed by the tribe to have connections with Ave. The shaman does not believe it to be so. Rivers is both fascinated and in fear of Njiru, as he is not sure if the tribe has abandoned headhunting even though the British had outlawed it.

“He was reminded suddenly of an incident in the Torres Straits when Haddon had been trying to get skulls to measure. One man had said, with immense dignity, ‘Be patient. You will have all our skulls in time.’ It was not a comfortable memory. He was not asking for skulls but he was asking for something equally sacred. He leant forward and their shadows leapt and grappled against the bush. ‘Tell me about Ave.’

Ave lives in Ysabel. He is both one spirit and many spirits. His mouth is long and filled with the blood of the men he devours. Kita and Mateana are nothing beside him because they destroy only the individual, but Ave kills ‘all people ‘long house’. The broken rainbows belongs to him, and presages both epidemic disease and war. Ave is the destroyer of peoples.”

Wilfred Owen was one of the heroes of the War.  In what is one of the scant references to battle in the novel, near the end of the war, Prior’s unit is commanded to undertake a near suicide mission. The soldiers know that the war is coming to a close and Prior remarks on it with the cynicism of a veteran. “I lay in bed last night and listened to them in the barn singing. I wish I didn’t feel they’re being sacrificed to the subclauses and the small print. But I think they are.”

In Melanesia Rivers shares the same cynicism about the Empire. He is discussing the consequences of the tribe violating the law by resorting to headhunting again.

‘Look you know what the penalties are. If they go on a raid there is no way the British Commsioner isn’t going to hear about it. And then you’ve got a gunboat off the coast, villages on fire, trees cut down, crops destroyed, pigs killed. Screaming women and children driven into the bush. You know what happens.’

‘Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?’

Ms. Barker writes both powerfully and with the humor of a sailor.

She sums up Craiglockhart.

“We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think- at least not beyond the confines of what’s need to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.”

The wars and the technologies change, but the anxieties remain. “Murder was only killing in the wrong place.”

Even if you do not like the war literature genre, this is a novel worth reading.