What becomes of us when all we know is death and killing, and that is taken away?
If that is the question being asked, the answer is not forthcoming. The book ends just before the war does, so we never get to see how any surviving characters would reintegrate into civilian life. From their worries, their neuroses, and what the experiences of warfare have done to them, the answer appears to be "not well." If the experiences of Rivers among the headhunters are instructive, particularly not well.
In the midst of the First World War, Billy Prior desperately wants to go back to the front. A victim of what is then termed shell shock, he has been hospitalized in England. Rivers, the psychiatrist that has taken care of him and many other men, sees the effects of war every day, but does not understand why anyone would want to return to the front. Billy does make it back, along with the poet Wilfred Owen.
From afar, Rivers tries to heal the men in his care, knowing they'll be sent back to be killed. While suffering from a battle with Spanish influenza, he gets stuck in his memories of doing anthropological research with a headhunting tribe, and his witness of their disintegration when headhunting is forbidden.The Ghost Road
feels distant from its characters sometimes, but from that remove weaves beautifully the attractions and horrors of war, the material world surrounding these soldiers, the hospitals that take care of the dead and dying, and who know their success stories will be sacrificed anew. We see men who are irrevocably changed by war. Their culture is now death, and death is about to be taken away.
Sex is another battlefield in this book - getting it, having it, exerting power through sexuality. Billy has to plan out an extensive campaign in order to be able to be alone with his fiancee, and, as in most combat, the plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy. Billy also attracts and is attracted to men and women he encounters, and maneuvers sexual interactions skillfully, and mostly from a position of power, power that he has not always held.
This book deals with what parts of their lives the soldiers can control, which are controlled for them, and how they deal with it. And the looming threat of peace, which the soldiers both desire and fear.
The writing in The Ghost Road
is evocative, and the details of the seamier sides of a soldiers life mesmerizing. The focus is squarely on the human elements of war, and Barker does a striking job of examining the moment before the end.