When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash: Captivating and reflective – book review –
But it’s North Carolina in 1984, and the murder of a black man will not only heighten racial tensions, but change the course of Sheriff Winston Barnes’ life…and the fate of the community he has. sworn to protect.
When Ghosts Come Home is the fourth novel by award-winning American author Wiley Cash. It’s a searing and emotionally powerful exploration of racism, class barriers, the complexity of relationships in a tight-knit community, and how different people cope with life’s almost inevitable tragedies.
Written with Cash’s exquisite evocation of time and place, his insight into the frailties of what it means to be human, and with a haunting darkness he tempers with unexpected rays of light, hope and redemption, it It’s a timely novel that offers so much more than an intriguing mystery.
When the roar of a low-flying plane wakes him in the middle of the night, 60-year-old North Carolina Sheriff Winston Barnes knows something strange is going on at the nearby airfield. But nothing can prepare him for what he finds…a large plane has crashed and now sits sideways on the runway with no sign of a pilot or cargo.
And when the body of local black man Rodney Bellamy is discovered – shot and lying on the grass near the crash site – Winston begins a murder investigation in Oak Island, the small island beach town that was ‘forgotten by the rest of the state.’
Soon the FBI has men on the scene looking for a drug connection, but Winston wants to keep the case under their jurisdiction to prove he is capable and responsible for the situation. And it seems everyone is suspect, including the late Bellamy, whose father is a teacher and civil rights activist.
Winston knows his days as sheriff may be numbered as his deputies are already choosing sides when his position is up for grabs in an election just a week away. Winston faces the challenge of 41-year-old Bradley Frye, a wealthy, arrogant, and well-connected real estate developer who is part of a gang that roams black neighborhoods and terrorizes locals.
As rumors and accusations fly, long-simmering racial tensions explode overnight, and Winston, whose own tragic past has followed him like a ghost, must do his duty while dealing with the painful repercussions of old decisions.
And as if those events weren’t disturbing enough for Winston, his wife Marie’s cancer has returned and he must finally come to terms with his daughter, Colleen, who has returned home grieving a heartbreaking loss she cannot not fully express.
A day of judgment draws ever nearer for the city of Oak Island…
The good guys and the bad guys – with their clearly defined moral and social distinctions – are the elements that stand out in a small township of the 1980s that has been deliciously imagined and created by an author who knows and lives in this corner of the world.
The true humanity of Winston Barnes shines brightly against the shadow cast by the appalling words and actions of Bradley Frye, an arrogant racist and the type of man the sheriff is more used to arresting for “driving in drunk or picking up prostitutes” than to stand against him in an election.
But it’s seeing Oak Island and its people through the triple perspectives of Sheriff Barnes, his daughter Colleen, whose angst is so viscerally real, and the cruel racist experiences of Rodney Bellamy’s teenage brother-in-law. Jay, that we gain an understanding of the undercurrents that simmer deep below the surface.
And there’s a hidden guilt here too, and the legacy of some painful secrets – including a violent act in Winston’s past – to confuse the jumble of issues as the atmosphere-rich story of crime and forgiveness, of Cash’s race and memory turns into a punch. end that is guaranteed to send sprawling readers.
Captivating and thoughtful, yet tender and haunting, this is Wiley Cash at his best.
(Faber & Faber, hardcover, £14.99)