Phantasms of War and Empire in Pat Barker's The Ghost Road

  • Toby Smethurst Ghent University
  • Stef Craps Ghent University
Keywords: Pat Barker, The Ghost Road, postcolonialism, postcolonial melancholia


This essay interrogates the nature, limits, and effects of the juxtaposition of Great Britain and Melanesia which takes place in Pat Barker’sThe Ghost Road (1995), the final instalment 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) which continues to characterize political life in the West. For all its strengths in highlighting the insidious workings of class prejudices on the front lines, the complex matrix of sexuality, duty, and friendship which defined relationships between men in the trenches, and the reconsideration of traditional gender roles that the war brought about both at home and abroad, the transformative and challenging confrontation with the human cost of Britain’s imperial transgressions which The Ghost Road seems to hold out 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.

Author Biographies

Toby Smethurst, Ghent University

Toby Smethurst is a PhD student of English literature at Ghent University, Belgium. His thesis investigates the under-theorized potential of video games to represent psychological trauma in ways that “traditional” trauma-fiction media such as novels, films, or autobiographies cannot.

Stef Craps, Ghent University

Stef Craps teaches English at Ghent University, Belgium, where he also directs the Centre for Literature and Trauma. He is the author of Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift: No Short-Cuts to Salvation (Sussex Academic Press, 2005), and has guest-edited special issues of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts (2011; with Michael Rothberg) and Studies in the Novel (2008; with Gert Buelens) on the topics of, respectively, transcultural negotiations of Holocaust memory and postcolonial trauma novels.