The Ghost at the Wedding, Shirley Walker’s 2010 memoir of her mother-in-law Jessie, explores the devastating impact the First and Second World Wars had on the soldiers themselves, as well as the women left at home. She does so with deftness and subtlety, in a beautifully-rendered “imaginative reconstruction” of her family’s truth.

Walker came late to telling her own stories. Throughout her career as a lecturer in Australian literature at the University of England, she wrote extensively about writers and writing, particularly the poet Judith Wright. A memoir Roundabout at Bangalow, published in 2003, covers her childhood in the northern New South Wales town of Bangalow, her memories of World War Two in Grafton, and her time as a cane farmer’s wife on the Burdekin River in Queensland. The Ghost at the Wedding, has been described as a ‘companion piece’ to this memoir.

While Walker herself is the narrator, the story is told primarily through the eyes of Jessie, whose family emigrated from the Scottish Highlands to the lush Clarence River region of northern New South Wales. When the First World War breaks out, the young men of this tight-knit rural community rush to join up, just as young men in tight-knit rural communities did all over Australia. Among them is Jessie’s brother Joe, and his friend and fellow cane-cutter, Ted Walker – Jessie’s future husband. Ted’s two younger brothers also heed the call. Of these four young men, only one, Ted, will return. The right side of his face disfigured by shrapnel fire at Pozieres.

A new generation of sons are named for the dead. They come of age just in time to enlist in the Second World War.

These were stories that had to be told. The families were great storytellers … but the silences were also there all the time because soldiers don’t tend to talk about the experience.

“These were stories that had to be told,” Walker said during a Sydney Writers’ Festival interview in 2010. While archival material, both personal and public, forms the basis of the narrative, the paintings that Jessie completed later in life provide the emotional core. “Her paintings were rather unusual, often symbolic, and not understood by many people,” Walker said during the interview. “So I’ve used some of those paintings – a description of them – as an entry into the way she felt about what happened to her.”

Like the waters of the Clarence River, The Ghost at the Wedding eschews drama, instead ebbing and flowing between past and present, and back again: from Jessie’s nursing home bed, through the cane fields of northern New South Wales, and the war fields of Gallipolli, France and New Guinea and onwards into the future.

The book is unsentimental is its depiction of war and its aftermath. It is meditative in tone, and rewards close reading. Perhaps this is why it remains an unsung hero, despite winning the Asher and Kibble Literary Awards, and being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. As non-fiction, the book was ineligible for the Miles Franklin, and published too soon to be considered for the Stella Prize. It deserves to be read, and those who find their way to it will be rewarded – as I was.

Notes on Craft

All through the night Jessie is humming her song. It wavers and flows like the tide of the river outside the nursing home. Though it’s now 1983, she’s singing the Gaelic of her forefathers, spinning threads of their journey from the Western Hebrides to New South Wales, to the big river at the end of the world. The sigh of the Atlantic on the shingle and the whip of the wind round the crags where the eagles hang. The sea-slap on the hulls of the sailing ship for the four long months of the voyage, and the gentle waves of the estuary here, where the journey ends.

I read The Ghost at the Wedding with a dual motive. I read it once for pleasure and again – several times – for insights into Walker’s craft. After rereading, I mapped its chronology, and flagged the places where she had used present tense. This wasn’t just a case of linguistic nerdiness – I’m writing my MPhil exegesis about temporality in family memoir, specifically the possibility of using and present tense to ‘make the past present’. I’m doing this because I’m looking for ways to ‘make the past present’ in my own work.

Walker uses the present tense sparingly, but in interesting ways. For example, the above passage, which opens the book, is in present tense. The passage depicts Jessie in her nursing home bed on the cusp of death, and the use of present tense evokes a closeness with Jessie that past tense would not. We know that the scene takes place in the past, because the year, 1983, is mentioned.

We are not offered any real insights into how Jessie is thinking or feeling – the narrative focalisation is still external. Yet there is an affective quality to this passage, which makes us feel as though we are there in the room with Jessie, “humming her song” rather than watching her from afar. This sense of immediacy is further enhance by Walker’s combination of present tense verbs and verbless description, which borrows from the epic form.

Walker also, on occasion, uses present tense to render her own forays into the narrative. Walker’s narrative present is fluid, allowing Walker to come and go from the material more freely. The relationship between the narrator and the text is not temporal – it only appears to be so. The seeing eye of the narratorial ‘I’ is in many ways like a film camera; it is a framing device.

The story, historical in its basis, may have a natural chronology, but the “story of the story” does not; its revelations are dependent on external factors – access to archives and physical locations, interviews and serendipitous discoveries. On the other hand, Jessie’s narrative present is specific, tethered in time and place to the nursing home.