About the Book:
A masterclass in the art of the short, unnerving novel; a story of forbidden borders, haunted landscapes and bodies in danger.
‘This book ratcheted the breath out of me so skilfully, that as soon as I’d finished, the only thing I wanted was to read it again.’ – Jessie Burton
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.
I first came to Sarah Moss’s writing with Bodies of Light, a novel I bought while away on holidays a few years ago. I read it curled up by a fire in a cabin in the snowy mountains and completely fell in love with her words. Not long after this, the sequel, Signs for Lost Children was released and I proceeded to devour that one as well. I don’t know if I can properly convey the brilliance of Sarah’s story telling, she’s certainly one of my favourite authors and I will forever drop everything to read whatever she releases next, which is pretty much what happened when her latest novel, Ghost Wall, arrived in my post box. It’s a slim novel, possibly a novella if you want to be precise, that is beautifully presented as a hardback with a dust jacket that is textured to mimic a woven basket, which fits into the theme of the story perfectly. I don’t usually dwell on covers too much, but this one stands out for its cohesive design.
For such a short novel, 150 pages, it really does contain a powerful story. Silvie is on holiday with her parents and they have joined with a professor of history and three of his students, two young men and a young woman, for an authentic experience in recreating life during the Iron Age. Not my idea of a great holiday, nor is it Silvie’s or her mother’s, but neither of them are considered to have an opinion – on anything. They are both perilously at the mercy of Silvie’s father, a man who is obsessed with British history, particularly the macabre and more brutal aspects, which uncannily, matches his persona to perfection.
‘He glanced at me. Is he always like that, Silvie? I mean, sorry, I know he’s your dad and all but. Like what, I said, a show-off and given to brutality, yes, actually, mostly he is, sorry. I could see Dan and Pete exchanging glances, almost see the words cross the air between us.’
Silvie’s father is a strange man, incredibly chauvinistic and full of his own importance and expert knowledge on ancient British history, ironic considering he is actually a bus driver, not an historian at all. He is a man who feels that he is trapped in the wrong life, the bitterness of it spilling out into blame, directed entirely towards his wife and daughter, who he brutalises with startling regularity. He is a despicable human being, and when you think you’ve seen him at his worst, he just comes back with something more vile. He is particularly interested in the bog people, not something I’ve ever known much about, although I do recall watching a BBC history program that detailed the way the bogs would preserve bodies. It’s kind of fascinating while also being macabre, but what I took away from this novel, was that if you were a bog woman, the odds were pretty much in favour of you being sacrificed, a fact that Silvie’s father seemed to thrive on.
‘The bog seals around you, and it will of course go further than skin, or at least will fill the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from the inside out. The boot it took had been firmly laced over my ankle; I couldn’t have taken it off without undoing the laces but somehow the bog managed it in the struggle without me even noticing.’
Silvie is an example of a young woman who has been indoctrinated into the normalisation of violence against women. In sharp contrast, Molly, one of the young students along for the trip, abhors violence against women, is repelled by Silvie’s father and his outward misogyny. Sarah brings these two young women together at a crucial time in Silvie’s life. As to Silvie’s mother, I felt so sorry for her, the years of belittling and unchecked violence had hollowed her out. Silvie, despite her fear of her father, was not as far gone as her mother. Small moments of defiance would rise to the surface, but the penalty for these would weigh heavily on Silvie.
‘Because they are men, I thought, because they’re in charge, because there will be consequences if you don’t. I didn’t see how she could not know that.’
The brilliance of Sarah Moss’s writing is evident in the multiple parallels she draws: between Silvie and Molly; between Silvie and the imagined life of a bog girl whose body had been on display in a museum that Silvie visited with her father. These connections tighten as the story progresses. When we reach the horrifying conclusion, we witness the full extent of the damage Silvie’s father has done to her over the years, with her passive acceptance of the inevitability of his actions. Again, Molly provides a sharp contrast in her refusal to accept Silvie’s fate. Sarah also demonstrates with chilling clarity, just how easily some men slip into a pack mentality, partaking in violence they would not normally consider if not for the influence of those around them.
‘There is an art to holding her in the place she is entering now, on the edge of the water-earth, in the time and space between life and death, too late to return to the living and not time, not yet, not for a while, to be quite dead.’
At times distressing, yet always honest, Ghost Wall is an important novel, well timed and incredibly on point. It’s beautifully written with a very personalised style of narrative that will not fail to impact upon you greatly.
‘They weren’t dead, the bog people, not to those who’d killed them. They had to be pinned to their graves with sharp sticks driven through elbow and knee, trapped behind woven wooden palings, to stop them coming back, creeping home dead and not dead in the dark.’
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Ghost Wall for review.
About the Author:
Sarah Moss is the author of the novels Cold Earth, Night Waking, Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone. She has been shortlisted for The Wellcome Book Prize three times as well as the RSL Ondaatje Prize for her non-fiction account of living in Iceland; Names For the Sea: Strangers in Iceland. Three of her books have been Mumsnet Book club choices. She is professor of Creative Writing at Warwick University.
Published by Granta
Released on 24th October 2018