Granta Books | 2018 (20 September) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book
Silvie’s father Bill is obsessed by the lives of our Iron Age ancestors. He is a bus driver, not an academic, but he believes himself in tune with the prehistoric past and considers himself an expert in that kind of subsistence living. And so when he has the chance to re-enact the past in a reconstructed Iron Age settlement in a remote part of Northumberland, he leaps at the chance. He is determined that his wife and daughter will immerse themselves every bit as much. There will be a professor and his small group of students with them, but Bill will not permit them to distract him from his obsession, although he may be able to share with the professor some of his firsthand knowledge of survival.
For Silvie, named after a Celtic goddess, there is no peace to be found in this re-enacted life. With a mother who is emotionally distant and shut down and, more to the point, an abusive controlling father watching her every move, Silvie becomes haunted by those who really did live like this over two thousand years ago and who made the ultimate sacrifice in the ancient bogs, killed by the people they knew. But, although Silvie looks back to the past, she must first survive the present.
Ghost Wall is such a beautiful written, melancholic and mesmerising novella. At about 160 pages, not a word is wasted in evoking this strange world as it exists in the minds of the father, Bill, and in his bullied daughter. Their relationship, so central to the story, is placed in such a fascinating setting – this reconstructed prehistoric settlement – and the past really does infuse the present, even while some of the students do their best to break the rules. The novella begins back in the Iron Age with the sacrifice of young girl and this sets the mood so effectively for what is to come. We spend most of the time deep within Silvie’s thoughts as she tries to carry out the role expected of her while she makes friends with the students whose lives are so very different from her own.
It’s such a tragic story and I think that there is more than enough material here for a novel much longer in length. And that would be my only ‘complaint’. I would have loved more time spent on this archaeological experiment. My background in archaeology really enjoyed this element of the story and I’d have liked much more of it. Also the story comes to a rather hurried finish and, although I found the ending very good, I thought more could have been made of it. But having said all that, Ghost Wall is such an immersive read that you’ll probably finish in one sitting, as I did. It’s haunting and elegant while also depicting something of the harshness of the Iron Age and the unforgiving nature of its spiritual beliefs. This was a time when life could be a daily struggle, lived in debt to the gods, but for Silvie modern life is hardly easier. Sarah Moss mingles so perfectly, and disturbingly, the distant past and present and the result is spellbinding.