Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2011

The Ghost at the Wedding (2009), by Shirley Walker

There can be little doubt that military history is one aspect of modern publishing is in good health.  Every year here in Australia there are new histories focussing on World Wars I & II, and lately also Vietnam.   Women at war get their share of attention too, with Patsy Adam-Smith being the first (I think) to introduce the theme to the general public with Australian Women at War (1984), and more recently the travails of the Home Front have become topics for student study and general interest.

But I don’t think there can ever be enough books about the enduring suffering that war causes.  When governments and the people who elect them make the decision to send young people to war, they ought to be fully cognizant of the effects of that decision, and Shirley Walker’s The Ghost at the Wedding has a contribution to make to that awareness.   It is a variant of family history which focusses on the story of Walker’s mother-in-law Jessie  – and her brothers who died in wars twenty years apart;  her husband who came back a damaged, embittered man and the brothers he lost to World War I; and her sons who survived World War II but not entirely unscathed.

The Sons of Clovis by Luminais, Wikipedia Commons

Saturn Devouring his Son, Goya, Wikipedia Commons

Painting, and the emotional release it brought to Jessie, is a strong thread in this book.  As a girl she was shocked by the cruelty of The Sons of Clovis, which she interprets as an example of young men hamstrung by the cruelty and ambition of their elders, and as an old woman she ponders the meaning of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Own Son, unsure whether it represents the malicious god that has caused her family so much sorrow, or a father jealous of his own child, as her own husband seems to be.  It’s probably the need to keep costs down in a competitive market which influenced the decision not to include these paintings (or any family photos other than the captivating one on the front cover), but it’s easy enough to find them online.  (Click the links to enlarge the images).

I’d have liked a family tree however, to clarify the confusion I experienced sometimes because Jessie’s first three sons (as was common) were named after the Fallen of her family.  For almost all Australian families, these symbolic namings were highly significant: apart from tokenistic medals and mourning badges, there was little other than the ubiquitous ANZAC memorials to console the bereaved.  Walker makes it clear that Jessie had a long-held resentment that the bodies of the Fallen from World War I were never repatriated: the numbers of the dead made it an impossibility. [1] For the Australian bereaved, as far as I know there is no equivalent sentiment to Rupert Brooke’s famous poem ‘The Soldier’

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England

for it was one thing for British soldiers to lie where they fell, a few miles across the British Channel, and another thing for Australian families denied the opportunity ever to visit European military cemeteries by the tyranny of distance – travel was unconscionably expensive and difficult well into the 1970s.

The losses of this generation were hard indeed to bear.

The Ghost at the Wedding won the 2009 Asher Literary Award  which specifies that the recipient be a female author of a literary work which carries an anti-war message or theme.

[1] ‘From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner’. Source: Australian War Memorial.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Shirley Walker
Title: The Ghost at the Wedding, a True Story
Publisher: Penguin, 2010
ISBN: 9780143203292
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Books


  1. […] Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, I would have appreciated a family tree, as different generations were named after their […]


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