Books and reading

Legacy of war: ‘Hungry Ghosts’ by CJ Barker

English-born Australian writer CJ Barker has created a novel that delivers profound truths about war and about the ways in which trauma’s effects on lives and relationships can endure.

The protagonists are working class Vic and Ruth, whose experiences in WWII inform their relationships and life trajectories for ever.

First we meet Vic’s father Frank, a veteran of the first World War, described as a quiet reserved man who keeps to himself. He deals with the unwelcome memories of his war years by turning to alcohol and work. Young Vic witnesses his father’s drunken episodes and times when ‘volcanos of rage’ rip through the house. Then Frank deserts his family to wander the countryside, a vagabond. He leaves a gift for his son – an old camera rescued from a rubbish heap. That camera is to become a salvation of sorts, but it also adds to Vic’s later grief and despair.

After his mother is killed in a bombing raid, Vic goes to live with his aunt Amelia, an unorthodox, modern woman who introduces him to photography as an art form. When war starts he joins the RAAF and hopes to be a pilot; instead he becomes a bomb aimer: a role that requires him to lie flat in the nose of the plane, directing the pilot to the target, then release the bombs at the right moment. On each mission, the crew expect to die.

Meanwhile, Ruth grows up in a poor neighbourhood in East London. She dreams of getting an education and a proper job that would allow her entry to the bigger world that beckons. But the best her world offers is a shorthand course and a secretarial job.

Then the war begins and she endures the Blitz along with her neighbours, crowded into air raid shelters at night. She volunteers for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where her clerical skills are put to use. She has ambitions beyond what’s expected for women at the time – she aims for work interpreting arial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes, roles mainly given to university educated women, as are officer positions.

The inequalities and unfairness of their society are painfully apparent to both Vic and Ruth, even as they serve their country and what they believe is the greater good.

At RAF Medmenham base in Buckinghamshire she and Vic meet. Their attraction to each other outlasts the war and while they must endure their own wartime tragedies separately, they eventually marry on VE Day. Their child, James, is born and Ruth must give up her job and become a full-time wife and mother, something she’d never planned.

It isn’t long before the lasting effects of the war begin to impact on the little family. Vic has found work as a professional photographer and his career is promising. But his inner torment and lingering mental and spiritual injuries find expression in the same way he’d seen with his father – alcoholism. Vic becomes a distant father, often cruel, and little James grows up under the shadow of two generations of war-induced suffering.

So a third generation enters a world dominated by conflict.

James begins study at Cambridge University – an opportunity denied his parents, but he questions its relevance in the face of the protests, drug use, anti-war sentiment and counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies. His father is lost to him – not even widespread praise for Vic’s stark photographs of the conflict in Vietnam can convince James that his father is anything but a useless, cowardly waste of a life.

There is a resolution – imperfect as these often are, but one which allows us to feel more hopeful for James’s future.

The settings and characters of the story are beautifully realised; the details of wartime in Britain conjure the darkness of that time, the reality that whether civilian or military, you could die at any moment. The hope that some held for a better world afterward:

For him, England, or at least East Anglia, had become a giant aircraft carrier littered with runways and rubble. He was familiar with the Nissen huts and landing strips of his base. He was intimate with the night sky over Germany and the tracer bullets that sped towards him like a stream of malicious fireflies. His homeland, though, felt like another country, alien to his memories, like a long-lost relative with whom he hoped to be reunited, only to find that they had grown apart during the missing years. And yet this ashen graveyard – this England – this was the place where he hoped that justice would spout like crocuses in spring.

Hungry Ghosts p99 /30% (ebook)

Hungry Ghosts is a beautiful, engrossing novel about all the hurts that humans can inflict on each other; and also about resilience and vulnerability:

Over and over, a question arose in his mind, like a bad dream, or a Zen riddle: after we have seen the horror, how do we go on?

Hungry Ghosts p227/67% (ebook)

You can read a guest post by the author on the blog Whispering Stories, in which he discusses the genesis of the book and describes it as a ‘letter of understanding and forgiveness to my (now deceased) parents.’

Hungry Ghosts is published by The Book Guild in March 2024.
My thanks to the author for a review copy.

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One Comment

  • Marg

    I do like a multi-generational story, and this covers some really interesting times in history

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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