Hungry Ghosts by C J Barker – Book Review

Hungry Ghosts by C J Barker – Book Review

Hungry Ghosts by C J Barker

Hungry Ghosts

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The lives of Vic Woods and Ruth Wolfe, working-class teenagers from Liverpool and London, are profoundly disrupted by the arrival of World War II. Ruth’s journey leads her to aerial photographic interpretation, though her aspirations for advancement are denied, while Vic’s wartime experiences with bomber command haunt him long after the war is over. Their post-war marriage and tumultuous relationship with their son, James, make for a gripping narrative of trauma, conflict and, ultimately, love.

Set against the backdrop of World War II and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, Hungry Ghosts transports readers into the drama of two pivotal eras in history, exploring the intergenerational impact of war, particularly on the intricate relationships between fathers and sons.

Hungry Ghosts is not just a war story; it’s a timeless exploration of family bonds and the indelible scars left by war.

Review by Julie

‘Hungry Ghosts’ is an historical novel from the pen of British-born, Australian-based author, Chris Barker. The story is told in three parts, in the third person and the past tense. We meet Ruth and Vic and follow their stories through the war and beyond, then subsequently spend time with James, their son, as a student.

Vic is a bomb aimer in a Lancaster bomber and his RAF comrades become the family he has lost. Ruth is keen to break free from the academic restrictions of her working class origins and is delighted when her application to join the WAAF is successful. After meeting at a dance they form an instant connection, leading them to marry after the war. Vic pursues his passion for photography and carves out a distinguished career travelling the world as an anti-war photographer. Ruth is inspired by Vic’s unconventional Aunt Amelia but is thwarted in her plans to go to university by the arrival of her son; nevertheless, she builds a successful guest house business. This is the image the world sees, but scratch the surface and life is far more complicated; Vic is plagued by haunting memories and Ruth is frustrated by her ascribed role.

We’re taken on a journey through the war and peacetime struggles of a family coping with mental health breakdown, domestic discord and alcoholism combined with money worries and a difficult dynamic with the child they both love but struggle to fully nurture.

Set against a backdrop of the uncertainty created by armed conflict, I found the courtship between Vic and Ruth both tender and poignant. Vic’s exposure to the brutality of the theatres of war left him mentally broken and today there’s no doubt he would be diagnosed with PTSD. Passages looking in depth at his hallucinations and inner turmoil were powerful and vivid; I commend the author for tackling a difficult area with such compassion.

The narrative shifts to James and his experiences of social, cultural and political upheaval in San Francisco, London and Paris, in the sixties. We find that he has been dramatically affected by Vic’s outbursts; his intransigence and animosity towards his father are clear. Either innately or through learned behaviour, echoes of Vic’s obsessive traits are apparent in his son.

We’re given an insight into society and gender roles of the past, along with inequalities in life chances created by a class system, much in evidence. Chris Barker wants his audience to understand the barriers faced by those in the lower socioeconomic groups at this time and those social messages will not be lost on his readers.

With multi layers and strong three-dimensional characters, this novel is striking in many ways, not least the extensive research which has created a work with which the author should be proud. I’m not sure this reviewer has been able to fully articulate a thorough assessment of the varied and complex issues raised but there’s no doubt ‘Hungry Ghosts’ deserves five stars.

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C J Barker

C J Barker

Born in England, resident in Thirroul, Australia, C J (Chris) Barker has been an educator in schools and universities in the UK and Australia.

He has published several non-fiction books, and now writes fiction between stints in the garden, where he grows vegetables and looks after chickens. He has published short stories in England, America and Australia.

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