Ghost Wall is Sarah Moss’s sixth novel, and enthusiasm for her novels – diverse though often historical – seems to be growing, and rightly so. I’ve previously read Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, both set in the nineteenth century though with powerful modern resonances. I’d been looking forward to reading Ghost Wall and was delighted when a lovely former student sent me a copy, and it’s a strange (in the best possible way), brief novel which I read in a couple of evenings. This time, it’s set in the more recent past (late 20th century) but looks back to an ancient past that can only be reconstructed to a certain point.
The events take place during a hot summer week when a group of students, with a somewhat bumbling professor, take part in ‘experiential archaeology’, living as though in the Iron Age for a week. The students have fluctuating enthusiasm for this, and the academic seems rather on the fence about it too, not wanting to put the students off by being too strict about how ‘ancient’ their experience must be. The focus, however, is on a family who join them. There is Silvie, a teenager whose life experience is very limited and whose home life is clearly troubled (and her name is really Sulevia, ‘an Ancient British goddess’ who turns out not to be particularly British after all). Her mother, Alison, is quiet, often ignored or treated as unimportant by both her family and the university group; but Silvie’s father, Bill, rules the roost and moves the plot along. Bill is a bus driver, whose passion is for ancient history and archaeology, and the narrative is sprinkled with his urges to be authentic, which often involves violence and the subjugation of women. In the uncomfortable relationship between Silvie and her father are traces of the dysfunctional relationship we see in Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, while the focus on the ancient landscape and human relationships with it recall Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast, though Moss’s book is very different.
The novel opens in the ancient past, with a young girl being sacrificed to the bog, and her terror and material symptoms of fear are swiftly and convincingly outlined, providing a context for the events which follow. As the group live out a pastiche of an ancient life, hunting, cooking in pots over open fires, learning to kill and skin animals, forage and become a part of the landscape, there is an eerie sense that the earth is somehow reclaiming them and that they are becoming more feral. Bill has devoted his spare time – and that of his family – to the pursuit of the past, but this is perhaps not so much out of love or interest as a desire to eradicate the modern world, with mind-rotting TV, feminism and junk food, from their lives. Bill is a despot in his family, but is gently put in his place repeatedly in uncomfortable encounters with ‘the Prof’, who corrects his pronunciation, suggests that authenticity isn’t really possible or even desirable – but ultimately eggs him on. The students open Silvie’s eyes to the wider world, but ultimately she remains her father’s possession, and the novel traces the domestic abuse of Silvie and her mother through the unrelenting horribleness of Bill, who has no redeeming features at all, though perhaps in his own peculiar way he loves his daughter.
Ghost Wall may be short, but its power lies in its terse demarcation of lines: human/animal, modern/ancient, past/present, belief/disbelief, so that we begin to question what we tend to believe. How we see the past is subjective; as this book makes clear, there is no one version of history, especially such ancient history, so it can be turned to its own uses, especially by a petty domestic tyrant. It makes us wonder how authentic we want the past to be, and are we more ‘civilised’ now, or not? The novel also indicates fading connections with the natural world, and there is a moment both spooky and bewitching when the ‘ghost wall’ is constructed and all the participants except Alison are caught up in a primal moment. This is quickly converted to a far more sinister denouement, though, which I won’t spoil for you. In some ways this could be read as a ‘coming-of-age’ novel, but it is much more than that: it’s also about what people choose, how they are selective, about the past and present, and the choices they make and those things they deliberately blind themselves to.