Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Ghost Wall" had a beautiful cover and a constant flashing banner advertisement on the Lit Hub website, so when I saw that my library’s online collection had a copy, I said let’s give it a whirl. And what a whirl. Even at a brief 152 pages, this book flies by so quickly and is so densely packed with forceful writing that it feels less like a snack and more like a meal. While it had every opportunity to skew YA fiction rather than adult lit (teen protagonist, forays into bildungsroman style flashbacks), the tone of this novel is as mature as blue chip stock. I LOVED it, even as I was unnerved by some of the behaviors of the characters and eventually shocked by the denouement. Good shocked, but shocked.
The story is told in first person from the perspective of Silvie, a twenty-first century teenager on an Iron age re-enactment trip with her parents, an archaeology professor, and a handful of students from a local university. The group is living in an encampment in the English countryside and attempting to follow ancient folkways practiced by the Britons in the time period—hunting and foraging for food, wearing long itchy tunic shifts over bare feet, sleeping in a communal hut, cooking by a fire. Silvie’s father, Bill, is not an academic, but an almost obsessive amateur enthusiast, who has dragged his family along for the experience. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Silvie’s normal life is not all that normal, lived in the shadow of her physically abusive, emotionally manipulative father and a cowering, complacent mother. Her parents’ behavior on the trip mirrors their home dynamic, just with even less places for Silvie to go to escape the scrutiny and the threat of discipline. She makes quasi-friends with one of the college students, a free-spirited girl named Molly who questions many of the strictures placed upon them for the immersion experience, sneaking off to a gas station when the mood strikes her to get some very non-period junk food snacks. Molly’s confidence and carefree attitude seem to both attract and frighten Silvie, who worries constantly about “getting in trouble” even when no one is watching or should care. Something about the idea of Silvie seeing a possible version of herself, stripped of the worry and doubt that comes with being under the thumb of a domineering, abusive parent, in Molly is very touching at the same time as it is very sad.
I was interested in some of the class differences explored in the book— the parents speak in a strong Mancunian accent from the north of England which seems accurately reproduced in the book without feeling like you’re wading through a soup of regional dialect. Silvie several times mentions the students’ accents as “sounding posh” as if they were somehow putting on in a way that Silvie and her parents were not, and Molly at one point makes a stab at imitating Silvie’s mother’s accent, which is not well received by Silvie herself. The students all seem relatively disinterested in their studies in spite of the opportunities they’ll afford them as university graduates, while Silvie mentions that she doesn’t see a point to going to university, and will probably just start a job after she finishes high school. Silvie’s father’s place in the field trip, as a lower working class, weekend aficionado of the armchair variety rather than a practicing professional, leaves him open to a kind of posture-off with the actual professor on the trip, and you can’t make out if the blustering is part of Bill’s bullying personality or an effort to establish his authority on the subject despite his lack of formal education. A particularly telling exchange happens when he brings up an obscure Celtic warrior queen in the midst of a historical discussion and the professor corrects Bill’s pronunciation before responding. “Boudicca, said the Prof, we call her Boudicca these days, it seems a more accurate rendition.” What a pill, I thought. The man drives a bus five days a week and somehow still finds time to know as much as you do about something you have a terminal degree in, Professor Whateveryournameis. But I digress.
As the book progresses, you can almost feel a knot tightening in your stomach, as nothing so much about the circumstances but everything about the voice and style of the writing points to dread. I remember being shocked/weirdly thrilled by this sentence in the second chapter, which is casually dropped in between some lines about the roughly built period-correct shelter: “Some of the Iron Age people kept their ancestors’ half-smoked corpses up in the rafters, bound in a squatting position, peering down empty eyed. Some of the houses had bits of dead children buried under the doorway, for luck, or for protection from something worse.” Well! This macabre tidbit gives you good idea of some of the tone of the book, which in some sections has the eeriness of a dream coupled with the banality that comes with spending a large portion each day walking the countryside searching for edible berries or setting traps for rabbits… the days seem as boring as they are surreal, in a way, each action or plot point strangely seems to anticipate the next. Also, the frequent references to the bog bodies—human cadavers that become mummified by peat bogs and are present an invaluable resource to the archaeological/anthropological community in reconstructing the lives of Iron Age (and later) peoples—don’t really do anything to lighten the aforementioned kind of ghastly vibe. The story is semi-haunted with the idea of death and brutality of a time period long since passed.
The book builds to a climax which, as I said before, makes sense in the context of the story but is shocking in its execution—I won’t spoil it for you, but get ready for weird to meet weird to meet unreasonably weird. I thought at the beginning of the book I might like to go on a similar field trip and experience what it was “really like” during such a different time period, but I now decline any going offers, thanks the same. If you’re looking for sensitive, incredibly well crafted storytelling with a sidecar of can’t-put-your-finger-on-it apprehension, "Ghost Wall" is your book.
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