The Ghost Road by Pat Barker Viking $255 AFTER finishing this book, I turned back to the beginning to start again. Not because it was a hard book to read but because it was deceptively easy. In this work - which this week overcame favourite Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Sigh to win Britain's prestigious Booker Prize - Barker has, extraordinarily, revived the texture, the odours, the sexuality and the undercurrents of life and thought in the early part of this century. In addition there are persuasive views on war, madness and desire. The story loosely follows Billy Prior, a young officer returning to France in 1918 as World War I starts to draw to a close, and W H Rivers, a real-life psychiatrist treating soldiers in a hospital. Prior and Rivers are both outsiders, observing with an unhappy detachment the rituals and ruses of a society in trouble. Prior was invalided from the Somme in 1917, and sent to Craiglockhart mental hospital in Scotland. His 'fellow nut-cases' included poet Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon. With Owens, Prior is preparing to go back to the Front, just weeks before the war's end. As he discusses with Rivers, he and Owens are the real test cases for Craiglockhart. If they can return to battle and retain a degree of sanity in the face of all that madness then surely the treatment has been a success. Yet sanity itself is hard to define. A true incident described here tells how Suffolk Regiment soldiers began kicking a football across no man's land when the whistles blew on the battle of the Somme. Madness, says one character. No, says another: the battle was mad; the football was sane. Barker has given Prior a furiously ironic sense of humour. As he attends the check-up that will decide whether he will be allowed to go back to the Front, Prior thinks about all these young men who are 'going to the doctor to improve their chances of being blind, dumb, paralysed, doubly incontinent, insane, brain-damaged or - if they were lucky - just plain dead'. Prior is not trying to be a hero. His reason for going to war has, as he explains, always been less to do with patriotism and more to do with fastidiousness. He doesn't want to work in munitions, or in the safe Ministry buildings. Life in wartime England is seen partly through Prior's eyes - everything is meaningless, yet charged with a static sexuality of the boarding-house variety. Love is snatched behind the sofa or in a cheap hotel with a whore or a boy. Prior's own sexuality is complicated, or perhaps it is very simple. As a boy he was seduced by a priest, and later men had to pay him pocket-money for their pleasures. Before he returns to the war he feels a need for sex that seems non-partisan: man or woman, Billy has no sense of romantic love, just an urgency to postpone, temporarily, his mortality for a few more minutes. 'Even the living were ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them.' Rivers, meanwhile, is treating shell-shock (the acceptable way to describe men having a nervous breakdown) patients in his hospital. They include Telford, who believes a nurse has cut off his penis and placed it in a jar of formaldehyde; and Moffet, who shouldn't ever have been sent to the Front, he says, because he can't even bear the sound of a champagne cork being pulled. Moffet is paralysed from shock, yet when he is asked why he hasn't applied for an exemption from the army he looks 'as if he had just been accused of eating peas from a knife'. ' 'One is not a pacifist, you know,' ' he says. Rivers' methods are controversial and unconventional. His pre-Freudian understanding of psychology was formed from his experiences growing up with the paedophile author Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) as a family friend, and from an anthropological field trip to Eddystone Island in Melanesia, where he learned about witchcraft and ghost beliefs. The Islanders had a tradition. A bastard boy was brought up by one of the richest men of the village, loved and cared for as one of his own children. When he reached maturity the villagers planned a pig feast: the boy, proudly, led the pig to his foster father in a grand ceremony. But, as the villagers looked on, knowing what would happen, the father sacrificed his adoptive son in a public axe killing. Barker does not spell out the parallels; but what is the difference between this and a so-called 'civilised' society that sends its sons to be sacrificed in trenches that are filled with frost-preserved human bones? This is not war sentimentalised through its heroes. There is no glorified 'going over the top' in Barker's World War I - just a slither through mud into machine-gun fire, to feel a glob of a friend's brain against your fingers.