Book Review: Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

About The Book

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, travelling 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. 

My Review

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize for 2019, is a slim novel but there is a lot packed into the 150 pages.

It tells the story of Silvie, a young woman who is on holiday with her parents in Northumberland. Well, I say holiday, what they’re actually doing is living as those in the Iron Age would have lived. Along with some archaeology students and their University professor they forage for food, fish, build fires and go to the bathroom in the woods. Silvie’s life so far has been quite cosseted, her father is a taciturn man for whom archaeology and history is both a hobby and an obsession. He is a quietly terrifying man and Silvie and her mother live by his rules. Silvie’s life thus far has been built around the structures he has put in place and it is only when she meets the students that she realises that her future may be something other than she or he have anticipated.

I really don’t know if I liked this book or not. Some of the characterisation is a little flimsy and there were two or three of the male characters who I kept getting mixed up and couldn’t really visualise at all. The book is written from Silvie’s point of view, and these characters are on the periphery of what she is experiencing so that is possibly why I struggled, but it did take me outside of the book a little as I paused trying to work out if Dan was the professor or a student.

Despite some of the dubious characterisation Silvie shines bright. The book is almost a stream of consciousness where her conversations and thoughts intermingle with one another which disorientates and disconcerts in equal measure. Darkness creeps at the edge of the narrative, some horror which is just out of reach prickles against your subconscious and unnerves the reader. There is something very wrong here and there were moments where I felt hit by emotion and felt both fearful and tearful.

But then, there are moments of complete beauty. Sentences which took my breath away which I had to re-read and highlight in my book (with a sticky note, I’m not a heathen). Quiet observations of the role of women in a patriarchal society are dropped into the narrative and cause shock waves of realisation. It is, at times, a powerful read and I felt that words had been chosen carefully to create the deepest impact.

This book has really confused me, either it is a brilliantly written novel which has gone completely over my head or it is decidedly average, I can’t work out which. It’s not a easy read, I think that some people will be put off by the lack of punctuation in speech for example (this seems to be a very popular trope at the moment) and the subject matter is tough, but, I do think it is an ultimately a rewarding read.

Where You Can Buy It

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is available to buy now in hardback and ebook and will be published on 6th June in paperback.

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