Book Review: When Ghosts Come Home
Y’all, I am star struck.
Way, way back in September of last year, our book club had the opportunity to sign up for a virtual meet and greet with Wiley Cash to discuss his latest work, When Ghosts Come Home. A native son of the Carolinas and the writer-in-residence at UNC-Asheville, Cash’s previous works, including A Land More Kind Than Home and The Last Ballad, have earned him heaps of well-deserved acclaim.
It’s not every day I get to meet a real-life celebrity, so I was a tad nervous. Though I have to say: the man is all charm. It was such a unique opportunity to get to pick the author’s brain about all of my burning questions. And believe me, the twist ending of this novel had all of us book club ladies. FIRED. UP.
When Ghosts Come Home is perfect suspense for 80s babies. Set over the course of just a few days in the fall of 1984, Ghosts follows Sheriff Winston Barnes as he tries to uncover the truth about the murder of a black father in Brunswick County, NC. The story is told in alternating perspectives between Winston, his troubled daughter Colleen, and the deceased man’s young brother in law. I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a ‘fun’ read: the subject matter can get heavy. The murder mystery plot is primarily a framework to discuss larger issues of race, class, politics, and loss. But don’t get me wrong: the mystery is intriguing and well-crafted, with enough detail to help you see the big picture, and enough ambiguity to leave you wondering long after you’ve turned the last page.
I will say it was a refreshing change of pace to read historical fiction that took place so recently. Cash situates this story in a signature time and place with references to pop culture and socio-political goings-on, and he does it really well. It’s a reminder to all readers of the genre that history is what’s going on in the background of our everyday lives.
What really makes this novel shine is the development of the relationships between parents and their children. Winston and Colleen, three generations of Bellamy’s, and even the relationship between Jay and his father-all demonstrate a love that is sometimes tough and sometimes tender, but always true. We had a lot of feelings at first about that unexpected gut punch in the finale, but hearing the author's intent in his own words, I get it now. The love between these people jumps off the page, so that the reader feels that initial shock of loss just as acutely as the characters would. The ending is stomach churning and heartbreaking, but still somehow you get the sense that these characters will survive because of the foundation of familial love on which their lives were built.
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