Just how far will a group of experimental archaeologists go to re-enact Iron Age life and rituals? Time for a rare break from my usual genre diet to enjoy Sarah Moss’s brilliant new short novel, Ghost Wall.
Ghost Wall focuses on liminal spaces: the physical spaces of Iron Age settlements, the practice of ritual torture and murder, the hardships of subsistence living. Silvie hovers between childhood and adulthood, caught between her desire for self-determination and her violent, controlling father. She’s trapped by his amateur enthusiasm for the past, forced to spend a baking hot summer in a homemade tunic sleeping on a straw sack and eating only what she can catch and her mother can cook on an open fire – while the academics they are living with sleep in modern tents and sneak off to the Spar for ice cream. As tensions within the group grow, it seems that only Silvie and her father are taking this seriously – but when the group begin experimenting with Iron Age ritual practices, just how far can he push them to go?
I’m a long-time fan of Sarah Moss, and this book brings together lots of things I love about her work: her gorgeous prose; her flair for bringing combative, even abrasive characters to life; the way she evokes the oppressive atmosphere they create around them; and the way in which she interweaves historical elements into every narrative. I can forgive the total absence of speech markers (ARGH) because everything else plays so completely to my heart.
There was an article on Moss’s blog recently about relatable characters – focusing on how it’s a terrible marker of merit, as it privileges the familiar and therefore the mainstream, making it harder for marginalised voices to make themselves heard. I agree whole-heartedly: it’s not a sign of a good book, just one you find more accessible.
There’s no denying that I love some of Moss’s (yes, also white, female) characters because I find them relatable even when they aren’t sympathetic. In Ghost Wall, I recognised Silvie’s confused response to Molly (part attraction, part resentment) and her crippling fear of being considered a know-it-all (ugh; yes, isn’t it awful when a girl shares her knowledge with you. These days I get paid to do it, and I still find myself trying to hold back, or position it in non-threatening ways). Likewise, I have my own memories of being an archaeology student in a baking hot 90s summer (if not on an Iron Age site in Northumberland; we were in the Cotswolds, and weren’t expected to pretend to be Roman farmers).
So it’s fair to acknowledge that this book gets a leg up for being so relatable for me – but’s I think there’s plenty here to enjoy for those who haven’t tried cooking rocks or weaving baskets (let alone tried performing murderous Iron Age rituals for giggles). That said, those with experience of abusive relationships may find it hard going – Silvie’s father is an awful man, and his controlling behaviours and physical (non-sexual) abuse were harrowing even though (thankfully) I’ve no such experiences myself.
The text gently explores the ways in which love and fear hold us in abusive situations. Silvie hasn’t finished school, and her background is working class: she has no easy way out. She’s bright and well-educated – her father’s passion for the past and for the natural environment has seen to that as much as his harsh treatment – but has no desire to go to university. She’s stuck, held in place by her certainty that her father loves her and an inability to dream of something different. I was genuinely afraid for Silvie at times, but I admired that Moss’s narrative ensured that I empathised with her even as I raged at her father (and oh, I raged).
Silvie’s mother, held just as surely by chains that are equally unbreakable, is kept peripheral. She reinforces the prejudices that shape Silvie’s outlook and keep her where she is: old-fashioned attitudes to a woman’s role that clash with Molly’s modern feminism; a working class pragmatism and focus on the necessities of survival that cannot understand (and can only resent) the frivolities of middle and upper class academics. I felt sorry for Alison, but she contributes to Silvie’s pains – it’s always Silvie‘s fault for antagonising her father, not his for being a misogynistic, short-tempered, abusive asshat.
I did enjoy the delicate development of Sylvie’s friendship with Molly, from the early flares of antagonism rooted in mutual misunderstanding and class prejudice to Silvie’s half-suppressed attraction and Molly’s well-meaning concern for her friend’s well-being. Molly is an outspoken feminist, determined that the boys should pull their weight in camp chores and refusing to be constrained by social expectation; but we never really know whether the Professor’s off-hand comments about her are true. Is she a poor student (she’s more interested in conservation than experimental archaeology, so she may be), or is she just dismissed for being confrontational and female?
This is a read that starts with dissonance and amplifies it with tension that doesn’t stop building until the very last page. It’s a short, fast read (you won’t want to put it down), and remarkably evocative for it’s short length. The baking heat, the frustrations, the sense of threat all blast off the page. That said, I would have liked it even more if it had been (slightly) longer. I was hoping for a less abrupt ending; perhaps a touch more closure. I want to know more about the consequences. Nonetheless, Ghost Wall is another tour de force from Sarah Moss.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Ghost Wall will be released in the UK on September 20th