With the weather getting colder and Halloween all around, I wanted to pick up a short, unsettling read as that seemed to be what the mood called for. I’ve seen plenty of positive reviews of Sarah Moss’ work before – including this one – so thought I’d pick it up and see.
In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.
For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs–particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.
The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?
I perhaps should preface this review by saying it has been a very tough week or so, and I read this whilst mildly distracted. I am tempted to read this again sometime next year when I’m a little more alert and able to sink more deeply into the story…
There is no denying Moss’ writing talent. Ghost Wall is a well-written novel/la, with language that is somehow both sparse and heavy with the weight of the words she uses. It’s set during a thick, hot summer (ok, so maybe not the best for this time of year), and the writing reflects that in a way that is subtle and clever. It is not a difficult read in that sense at all, and the shortness of the book (a trim 149 pages) also gives the narrative a kind of urgency and intensity that gives it an almost thriller edge.
One thing I have seen in a few reviews is Moss’ connection to the landscape and the heritage of the north of England – that the age-long arguments on the north-south divide are perhaps at the forefront. This is certainly true. This is a very English book, that looks at class and this divide through young, slightly bemused and defensive eyes.
Silvie is very aware of her ‘place’. Her place in the landscape, her place in the events around her, her place at home. It is a hyper-awareness, almost, and though she feels very fixed she dreams of escaping. Of pushing the boundaries and her ‘place’ to be free to be herself of an individual. This is where the narrative gets it’s complexity from, the beautiful way Moss tangles what is known, what is expected, and what is wanted. Silvie’s relationship with her father is at the core of this, with its violence and tenderness, to add to the weight of the two weeks the story covers.
It’s a very subtle book. Sometimes more than others, but overall there is a light touch to a plethora of themes and complexities that you could unpick over and over and over again through each re-read (another reason to come back to this at a later date).
The one thing that fell short for me overall was the concept of the ghost wall itself, particularly at the end. The ending felt rushed and slightly at odds with the drive and tension that had come before. The building of tension was throughout, but once everything was over I was left with a kind of ‘is that it?’ feeling. I won’t spoil it. But I just felt that a little more time and care could have been given to the ending that would have made it more satisfying – not necessarily rounding everything off, as I don’t think that would have supported the book as a whole, but it did feel like something was lacking.
Short, cleverly written and subtly complex, I do recommend it (TW for abuse, though), and it will definitely one I keep coming back to.
What have you been reading lately? Let me know down below!