When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash: Gripping and reflective - book review -

When a man is found shot dead next to an aeroplane that crash-landed in the middle of the night, the sheriff of a small coastal town knows that all eyes will be on him to solve the mystery.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 15th February 2022, 3:45 pm
When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash
When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash

But this is North Carolina in 1984 and the murder of a Black man will not just exacerbate racial tensions but change the course of long-serving Sheriff Winston Barnes’ life… and the fate of the community that he swore to protect.

When Ghosts Come Home is prize-winning US author Wiley Cash’s fourth novel and 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 that he tempers with unexpected rays of light, hope and redemption, this is a timely novel that delivers so much more than an intriguing mystery.

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When the roar of a low-flying plane awakens him in the middle of the night, 60-year-old North Carolina Sheriff Winston Barnes knows something strange is happening at the nearby airfield. But nothing can prepare him for what he finds… a large aeroplane has crash-landed and is now sitting sideways on the runway with no signs of a pilot or cargo.

And when the body of local Black man Rodney Bellamy is discovered – shot dead and lying on the grass near the crash site – Winston begins a murder investigation in Oak Island, the small and insular beach town which has been ‘forgotten by the rest of the state.’

Soon the FBI have men on the scene looking for a drugs connection but Winston wants to keep the case under his jurisdiction to prove that he is capable and in charge of the situation. And it seems everyone is a suspect, including the dead man Bellamy, whose father is a teacher and a civil rights leader.

Winston knows that his days as sheriff may be numbered because his deputies are already choosing sides when his job goes up for grabs in an election in just a week’s time. Winston faces a challenge from 41-year-old Bradley Frye – a wealthy, arrogant and well-connected property developer who is part of a gang that cruises through the Black neighbourhoods and terrorises the residents.

As rumours 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 facing the painful repercussions of old decisions.

And as if these events weren’t troubling enough for Winston, his wife Marie’s cancer has returned and he must finally confront his daughter, Colleen, who has come home grieving a shattering loss that she cannot fully articulate.

A day of reckoning is drawing ever closer for the town of Oak Island…

Good people and bad people – with their moral and social distinctions clearly marked out – are the stand-out parts in a small 1980s township that has been exquisitely imagined and created by an author who knows and lives in this corner of the world.

The genuine 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 that the sheriff is more accustomed to arresting for ‘drunk driving or picking up prostitutes’ than standing against him in an election.

But it is seeing Oak Island and its inhabitants through the three-way viewpoint of Sheriff Barnes, his daughter Colleen, whose anguish 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 is hidden guilt here too, and the legacy of some painful secrets – not least a violent act in Winston’s past – to confound the mix of troubles as Cash’s richly atmospheric tale of crime and forgiveness, race and memory builds to a gut-punch ending that is guaranteed to send readers sprawling.

Gripping and reflective, yet tender and haunting, this is Wiley Cash at his very best.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £14.99)