Reviewed by Laura Tisdall
Having read every novel that Sarah Moss has written (plus most of her non-fiction) I was eagerly anticipating Ghost Wall. It didn’t disappoint, although its brevity made it feel a little less substantial than previous stand-outs like The Tidal Zone and Bodies of Light. Set in the 1990s at a recreated Iron Age camp in Northumbria, Ghost Wall is narrated by seventeen-year-old Silvie, who, along with her mother, is being emotionally and physically abused by her father Bill. Moss adeptly captures Silvie’s frustration at her mother, with her ‘fat white knees’ and her ‘mustn’t grumble’ mantra, and her dual desire to please her father and resist him.
Bill is obsessed with Britain’s distant past, which he incorrectly imagines as a time before immigration and multiculturalism, and is desperate to try and recreate his idea of what life was like ‘back then’. This allows Moss, always an incredibly intelligent writer, to get in some good musings about how we think about history; how Anglo-Saxons would have taken shortcuts as well rather than mindlessly following tradition; how much of what we think of as ‘primitive’ behaviour is mirrored in the present day. This conversation between an archaeology professor and Silvie is a good example:
At least part of their defence [against the Roman imperial army] was magic, did you know that? War trumpets, scary noises coming at you over the marsh… I said, don’t the Americans use magic and scary noises to this day, don’t they paint pictures on their bombs and play heavy metal outside their enemies’ compounds?… Yes, said the Prof, they do, and you’re right, it’s probably very much the same thing.
Moss’s deft characterisation and sharp observation is once again woven throughout. While it’s impossible to sympathise with the bullying and racist Bill, Moss makes his frustration palpable when he finds his years of amateur research being ignored because he doesn’t have a PhD. Similarly, Bill is distraught at what he sees at the ‘state’ of Newcastle in the 1990s, with the deserted quayside a graveyard for its former industrial glory. (I’m not sure he’d be very impressed by the pop-up bars and street food outlets in shipping containers that we have here now!)
Silvie is brilliantly drawn; Moss demonstrates her unusual ability, first showcased in The Tidal Zone, to write teenagers respectfully. While some of Silvie’s frequent interjections are rebellion for rebellion’s sake, many are not, as when she rightly tells off two of the archaeology students for making fun of her accent and her full name, Sulevia, which her father chose because it was a ‘proper native British name’:
He likes British prehistory, he thought it was a shame the old names had gone. Right, said Pete… You know it’s not really British, right? I mean, Sulevia, it’s obviously just a version of Sylvia which means – of the woods in Latin, I said, yes, I know, a Roman corruption of a lost British word. There are actually people who know Latin where I come from, we do have books.
The sparks of attraction Silvie feels towards one of the students, Molly, suggest that she may be coming close to a realisation about her own sexuality, but this never feels forced or tokenistic.
For me, Ghost Wall is let down a little by its structure. Moss’s first novel, Cold Earth, set in Greenland, was delightfully creepy, and the opening of Ghost Wall, with its atmospheric description of a human sacrifice seemingly destined to be uncovered as a ‘bog body’, recalled that mood:
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.
It soon becomes clear that the novel is building up to the offering of somebody in the present-day. However, when the climax kicks off, it’s virtually over before it’s begun. This decision feels inexplicable after all the careful work Moss has done to reach that point, and it makes the book as a whole feel unfinished, episodic. However, a below par Moss novel is still very much worth reading. Ghost Wall recalls Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days in its examination of place, history, and a certain kind of violent masculinity.
Laura Tisdall is a writer and historian. Find her blog here.
Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall (Granta, 2018). 978-1783784455, 160p., hardback.
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