Title: Ghost Wall: A Novel by Sarah Moss
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Day: Jan 8, 2019
In a nutshell (Amazon):
The light blinds you; there’s a lot you miss by gathering at the fireside.
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?
A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the “primitive minds” of our ancestors.
Ghost Wall is about 17 year-old Silvie, her mother and her abusive and controlling father, participating in an reenactment of the Iron Age in a camp in Northumberland, England, with a lecturer and 3 other students.
This is a quiet, atmospheric and dark novel(la). Its narrative is long, descriptive, demands attention, but utterly compelling and powerful. If you aren’t used to the style, be patient, because it’s worth it, at least for me. Once the writing sinks in, you’ll find yourself sucked into Silvie’s world, even though set not too long ago, it is one quite different from our own.
The story takes us right to the campsite and back to the days living in the marshlands. For their reenactment, they lived in the Iron Age as realistically as possible.
The students ate food that was hunted and gathered in the woods, cooked in an iron pot over a fireplace; they lived in roundhouses and tents, despite the sweltering heat, dressed in coarse tunics and uncomfortable moccasins and practiced odd traditional rituals.
For breakfast, they ate gruel that looked like “white sauce or maybe wallpaper paste” bannocks for tea in “weird wooden bowls and rough wooden spoons with bunches of reeds”, bannocks (round, flat loaf) for tea, and stew rabbit (skinned and butchered by Silvie herself, while the boys watched in horror) for dinner.
I loved Silvie, Molly and their friendship. Without Molly, I think Silvie’s experience at the campsite would’ve been a dull, lonely one. She definitely wouldn’t be venturing out into the city eating ice-cream, or having conversations about dreams and ambitions, things that Silvie never thought possible, while Molly on the other hand wouldn’t be able to get a glimpse into a life different from hers.
Silvie’s dad, Bill, and Professor Slade were the worst. Bill was a bully. He was abusive, controlling and just utterly disgusting. He thought of nobody or nothing else but him and his obsession of living the Iron Age life.
When he found Sylvie bathing naked in a stream one day, he stroke her again and again with his Iron Age leather belt “as if the air invigorated him, as if he liked the setting”. I felt every burn, heard every sound “as his arm rose and swung and rose again, as the belt sang through the sunny air”, while she numbed her pain and mind and “thought hard about the tree between my hands, the leaves photosynthesizing the afternoon sun, about the berries ripening by the hour, the impalpable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of the roots below my feet and deep into the earth”. Every bit of it was unbearable.
And Professor Slade, a pleasant professor as he was, said and did nothing as he watched Bill demean and mistreat his family, to the extend of agreeing to do what he knew was wrong, just for the sake an experiment.
This book left me terrified just at the thought of how much we haven’t changed from some of our primitive minds/ways of our ancestors – building ‘walls’ to keep out invaders, how we react to power and violence, and the ever-existing herd mentality. When Bill and Professor Slade carried on with their experiment, which Bill said was “just a bit of play-acting for the Professor’s work”, Dan who knew it was wrong, just turned a blind eye, and together with Pete, they drummed and chanted away as Bill prepared Silvie for the ‘act‘.
The ending, although some readers felt abrupt, I thought it was just right. I liked that the it lingered and stayed in my mind. It felt more like an ‘ellipses’ than a ‘period’, which I liked. I appreciated the book even more after ruminating it for a few days. This novel(la) is unforgettable.
This is my first of Moss’s work, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Thank you NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for a free eArc of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own.
*Quotes included here are from an advanced readers copy and are subject to change upon final publication.
TW: child abuse, domestic violence, animal cruelty
Have you read this book? If yes, did you enjoy it? If you haven’t, do you plan to read it? Or have you read something similar?
Till then, HAPPY READING!