Arguably the best novel of the trilogy, for having been nominated for Orange Prize in 1996 and having won the Booker that year, there was no question in my mind as to whether I would read on following Regeneration and The Eye in the Door. Despite my habit of resisting war fiction, Pat Barker had established a trust and I not only knew that I would read on, but when I realized that I had somehow misplaced my copy of the final volume in the trilogy, took a streetcar across the city to pick up a copy in another library branch so that I didn’t need to wait for it any longer.
The growing intimacy in The Eye in the Door peaks in the final volume of the trilogy with Prior’s diary. He had told Rivers, early in their treatment relationship in Regeneration, that he thought the best test cases of observing whether a treatment worked would be those soldiers who were sent back to the front. Rivers tells Prior that he thinks he has great powers of detachment and would be better equipped than most to observe the process and Prior takes up the challenge.
Great powers of detachment: it’s a tricky thing, for in being too detached, one can enter a fugue state, have memory lapses in which one becomes another person for a time and steps outside of his own life, but it’s true that that sense of detachment, in moderation, could not only be a useful (even essential) coping mechanism, but a quality much admired, particularly by a scientist like Rivers. This kind of contradiction and questioning characterizes Pat Barker’s trilogy.
Rivers is asking himself a lot of hard questions in The Ghost Road. He says: “I suppose what one should be asking is whether an ideal becomes invalid because the people who hold it are betrayed.” He seems to be struggling with the fact that the very qualities publicly lauded (e.g. courage) are not in evidence on the home front, specifically not in evidence in those making the decisions about whose lives will be lost.
Rivers has internalized the spirit of Sassoon’s open letter and, partly because he now recognizes that the war has had a negative impact on his own life (forcing him to set aside the research that he had pursued so passionately), but also because he has spent so much time with veterans from the front and had such extensive exposure to the damage they’ve suffered, he is questioning whether those policy-makers have the qualities they are demanding others have, wondering whether they are prepared to make the same sacrifices they are asking thousands of young men to make.
These are relevant questions today: consider the news of Prince Charles’ son seeing action in the war, consider the controversy surrounding the Bush children’s military service (or lack thereof).
Rivers has also internalized the challenge that Prior posed to him early in his treatment, whether he has resolved all the kinds of issues in his own personal life that he suggests haunt his patients, including their recent wartime experiences. In revisiting his own past, he considers the wider questions surrounding death and sacrifice, trust and betrayal, and the use and abuse of authoritative power (in both intimate and political scenarios).
As a part of this process, he recalls a common practice on Vao, which he visited as a young anthropologist; there he learned some basic principles about healing and regeneration that he continues to apply in his practice, and he also observed some social relationships that are starkly different from those in his contemporary society in terms of who takes responsibility for whom.
On Vao, when a bastard is born, he is adopted by a leading man in the community and brought up as the man’s own, calling him father, surrounded by love and care, but when he reaches puberty, “in front of the entire community, all of whom knew what was about to happen, the boy led the pig to the sacrificial stone, where the father waited with upraised club. And, as the boy drew near, he brought the club down and crushed his son’s skull.”
Doesn’t it sound like a horrifying story? The arc of the club, the impact on the young boy’s skull: it’s vivid, it’s simply horrifying.
And you immediately put on your Superiority Cap and start protesting about primitive cultures, proclaim the man is a betrayer, a murderer, insist there is no justification for such an act. No justification for the act of a single murder, when hundreds of thousands of sons have died because of decisions that men have made, men who have never even had the courage to raise the club themselves.
It’s a single page in the novel, not even a full page, which includes another archetypal image, that of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac in the stained glass of a church.
But it’s also far more than a single page; in some ways, it is the whole trilogy, asking vital questions where, too often, there is silence.
And, in some ways, this is the reason that I’ve now adopted Pat Barker as one of my MRE authors.
PS For those who are just as keen on this trilogy, or on Pat Barker’s writing in general, you might appreciate this link to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview via Writers and Company, available online. (Eleanor Wachtel’s interviews would be on my MHE list if I had such a thing.)