‘The Ghost at the Wedding’ by Shirley Walker


2009, 247 p

It has often struck me that I am part of a blessed generation that has lived in a time of peace and ,with only a few blips of recession, continued economic growth.  My father was too young to have fought in World War II, my brothers too young for Vietnam, and unless world war breaks out within the next ten years, my son is unlikely to have to fight (and indeed, I find it hard to imagine the scenario that would prompt him to volunteer to do so).  An earlier, blighted generation, however,  experienced World War I,  the Depression and World War II again in what must have seemed an almost never-ending succession of difficulties and disasters. Jessie Walker, who is the subject of this book, stood at the pier to wave off her brothers and their friends in World War I and then sent off her own sons and younger brothers to the Second World War.  It is a war story, but told from the point of view of the women left behind.

The author, Shirley Walker, describes this book as “a memoir of my mother-in-law, Jessie and… an imaginative reconstruction of her family’s truth“. She has used letters, diaries, service records and family documents but she writes “the inner life of each character, especially that of Jessie” from the imagination.  She draws on the existing paintings that Jessie created in later life as a way of reconstructing Jessie’s inner life, but imagines and describes other paintings never made.  The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is often tentative- it is, after all, the love of the same man in the different guises of son and husband that links them-  and you sense Shirley Walker’s sensitivity to the wider family in writing this book. She has changed some names to protect some family members.

The book opens in 1983 with Jessie in a nursing home, and from here the  chronology of the book skips back and forth.  The author (the daughter in law) identifies herself as “I” and Jessie’s story is told in the third person.  There is limited dialogue. Although Jessie is the focus of the book, it also describes at third-hand or through letters, the war experiences of sons, fathers, nephews and uncles. It is a book very much grounded in Jessie’s life with her husband and sons on the peninsular island that emerges from the waters of the Clarence River, but it traverses much further.

It is a beautifully written, lyrical book.  The men of the Walker family were alive to the sights and sounds around them, and it comes through in Shirley Walker’s retelling. The book comes with high praise from the novelist Alex Millar whose blurb reads:

An unqualified masterpiece.  The most moving account of love and war I’ve ever read.

I must confess, though, that even though I was saddened by the book and the thought of so much death across several generations, I was not moved to tears.  Perhaps it was the author’s restraint in telling another’s story, or perhaps it was the ethical distance that her relationship with the subject imposed on the author, already a published academic.

Like Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, I would have appreciated a family tree, as different generations were named after their forebears.  I’m still a little perplexed by the title, which does not seem to refer to any particular wedding, but perhaps that is intentional.  The story here of one individual woman is a generational story, and as such, one that I hope women yet unborn never have to experience.

We are sure to read many biographies and histories of World War I this year, and next year, the centenary of Gallipoli which has assumed such importance in popular Australian historiography.  There is, among some historians, an uneasiness about the overwhelming prominence given to ANZAC -hence the Honest History website which notes:

There is much more to Australian history than the Anzac tradition; there is much more to our war history than nostalgia and tales of heroism. Honest History is being set up to get those two messages across. Our approach is ‘not only Anzac, but also [many other strands of Australian history]’. We see history as complex with many interwoven, competing evidence-based strands. This sort of history should be the mainstream; hyperinflation of a particular strand is an anachronism.  Editorial and moderation policy, Honest History website

The bookshops already seem to be stuffed full of Big Books of War, generally written by men, many of whom have a journalistic background. I’m thinking Les Carlyon, Peter Fitzsimons etc. and of course, the author of the biggest Big Book of War of them all, Charles Bean.   Where women have written about war, the focus tends to be less on battles and more on the men themselves; less on valour and bravery and more on loss and suffering. (I must confess to not having read Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs, and so I don’t know whether this holds true for her book or not). The Ghost at the Wedding fits into this more person-centred approach that encompasses both the warfront and the homefront, those who stayed behind and those who returned.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I want to post it to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.


9 responses to “‘The Ghost at the Wedding’ by Shirley Walker

  1. I’m interested to see what you say about the Honest History website, I’ve just finished reading Anzac’s Long Shadow (http://wp.me/phTIP-76e) and am still processing the way my long held assumptions have been challenged by this book. I’ve always felt a bit ‘left out’ of the whole Anzac thing, because since John Howard it’s felt a bit like a sorting mechanism to identify *real* Aussies i.e. those who have an Anzac ancestor. (Unlike Australians with a non-Anglo background, I do have ancestors who fought in WW1, but they are not Anzacs, and it seems they don’t count). But the way Brown dissects the Big Business aspect of Anzac, and the way it is swamping other priorities and distorting decision-making is new to me. It seems to me that this is a national conversation that we ought to have…

  2. “and unless world war breaks out within the next ten years, my son is unlikely to have to fight (and indeed, I find it hard to imagine the scenario that would prompt him to volunteer to do so)”

    This is one of the best things about our modern generation. They will not put themselves forward as cannon fodder. They are smart and cynical and too well educated.

  3. I like your point about men and women’s writing about war … Though that probably holds true more for nonfiction, as you’re discussing, than for fiction. There is of course war genre fiction, but novelists like Malouf have written very movingly about the personal cost and impact of war.

    And like Lisa I’m bothered by the rise of the ANZAC in recent years. It has some positives – increased knowledge and awareness – but it has become so skewed in several directions AND it feeds into a very uncomfortable sort of nationalism.

  4. I’m older than you – grandfather in WWI, father in WWII, brother-in-law in Vietnam – all volunteers, the last a professional soldier who has nephews in army and navy today.

    I’m struck by how much *less* anti-war we are today than in the Vietnam era. But I’m afraid I’m a bit cynical as the the reasons for this – I think if any government introduced conscription, as happened in the 1960s, there would suddenly be a rush of anti-war rhetoric, as all those people who can’t be bothered to protest against a war, began protesting against conscripting them or their children.

    But it won’t happen because the technology of war has changed so much – the armed services don’t want untrained and unwilling conscripts. And the rest of us are distanced by the professional men in uniform – and treat them with undue respect, which is very useful for politicians. I reminds me of the situation 200 years back when a professional army threw up Tory politicians like Wellington to be hero worshipped by the ignorant masses.

  5. Yes, we are seeing the start of a flood of WWI books. I hope that the glut will not turn people off Australian history altogether. I hope that historians will take the chance to really challenge received myths about WWI. Possibly the most important area about WWI that needs more research is the years after WWI. The war did not end in 1918. For years after the war was played out in the homes of families throughout the world, blighted by grief, caring for invalids and domestic violence.

    I’m going to be very picky about what WWI histories I read!

  6. Pingback: Histories and Life Writing in Autumn | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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