Toby Smethurst and Stef Craps
ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 44.2-3 (2013): 141-67.
Publication year: 2013

This essay interrogates the nature, limits, and effects of the juxtaposition of Great Britain and Melanesia that takes place in Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), the final installment of the much-lauded Regeneration trilogy. Published two years before the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, which marked the unofficial end of the British Empire, and four years after the end of the neocolonial charade of the first Gulf War, The Ghost Road brings its readers back to the beginning of the twentieth century, cannily meshing a carefully researched portrayal of the First World War with its protagonist’s dreams and memories of a Melanesian society suffocating under the oppressive weight of colonial law. Drawing on Paul Gilroy’s concept of postcolonial melancholia, we read the success of the Booker Prize-winning novel as reflecting a deep-seated anxiety about the downfall of empire(s) that continues to characterize political life in the West. The novel’s strength lies in the way it highlights the insidious workings of class prejudices on the front lines, the complex matrix of sexuality, duty, and friendship that defined relationships between men in the trenches, and the reshuffling of traditional gender roles that the war brought about both at home and abroad. In spite of its merits, however, the transformative and challenging confrontation with the human cost of Britain’s imperial  transgressions that The Ghost Road offers is consistently deferred and masked behind its more visible portrayal of the melancholic fantasy of a racially homogenous, tragic, and exclusively Western First World War.