I’ve seen many good things about Sarah Moss’s writing over the past year so when I spotted Ghost Wall on our bookshop travels, I had to add it to our collection. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Was it paranormal, literary, historical? Now I’ve finished it I would say that it’s not the former although ghosts of sorts do feature, and it’s not really historical either. Literary yes – in the sense that Moss uses language in a slightly unusual way, but I still found it accessible. The Lord of the Flies-style blurb drew me in immediately:
Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology.
Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.
Ghost Wall is a short book and the story itself is as meagre as the camp’s rations, but what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in depth. Told from the point of view of Silvie (short for Sulevia – a Celtic Goddess), we view her tense, sometimes violent relationship with her father right from the start. Simultaneously respectful of his knowledge and scared of his temper, Sylvie must walk a thin tightrope every day to keep the peace. But when she meets Molly, a feminist student who’s also on the trip, she sees another world beyond her own restricted life. As tensions rise, the brutal consequences of this rebellion become apparent, both midway through and then later in the novella.
Alongside the main tale, there’s a subtle parallel with the ‘sacrifice’ of the ancient bog girl who was found on the moors above the settlement. Sylvie frequently empathizes with the murdered teenager, whereas her father relishes the actual ritual itself. I can only write on a personal level, but throughout Ghost Wall, I felt there was a clear duality between male and female. Male representing the past, knowledge, brutality and female connecting with nourishment, empathy and the future. There were other more obvious themes too – the father’s obsession with racial purity and subjugation of women – again both associated with his obsession for nostalgic prehistory. At it’s most extreme, these differences can also be seen to mirror the current global split between conservative and progressive thought – a fascinating comparison to explore.
The writing is as good as I hoped it would be. Fluid and sure, it conjures up a deep sense of place. I loved the way that Moss uses landscape to connect humanity through the ages. We are all ‘ghosts’ – treading each others’ paths.
Moss doesn’t use speech indicators so this took a little getting used to, but the words soon flowed. For such a slim book, the pace was expertly maintained until right at the end when it jumped suddenly . I can see why this was necessary this though even if it didn’t quite fit with the measured rhythm that dominates the rest of the novella. The only aspect that really didn’t work for me was the time period. It’s supposed to be set in the 1990s, but sometimes it felt like the 1950s and at others, modern day. Maybe this was intentional, but it occasionally distracted me from the narrative.
Ghost Wall isn’t exactly what I’d call a satisfying story. It poses more questions than it answers and opens up paths that lead beyond the final pages, but that’s part of its appeal. And even more compelling is the stark warning at the heart of the book. Learn from the past by all means, but also understand that we need to progress beyond it. This short, powerful read shows us all we need to know.
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