Category Archives: Novella

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Granta Books | 2018 (20 September) | 160p | Review copy | Buy the book

Ghost Wall by Sarah MossSilvie’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.

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Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey Davis

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 | c.80p | Bought copy | Buy the ebook

Vesuvius by Night by Lindsey DavisYears ago, Larius, nephew of Marcus Didius Falco, the most famous of Rome’s private investigators, ran off to set up shop as a fresco painter in Pompeii, located in the Bay of Neapolis where many of Rome’s rich and powerful have their holiday homes, all with walls in need of painting, especially since that dreadful earthquake a double of decades ago. There’s more than enough work to keep Larius busy. And to keep his mind off his troubled marriage. His wife now lives with their children in Herculaneum, although he’s so pleased that his daughter is currently keeping him company in Pompeii. Women aren’t supposed to have careers but she is a dab hand with a paintbrush. Larius shares his room with Nonius whose mind is on far murkier subjects than art – unless it’s a work of art he can steal and sell. Nonius is the type of rogue who thrives on disaster – he’s in the right place then.

In Vesuvius by Night, a novella (of about 80 pages), Lindsey Davis lets us know what happened to Larius after he left Rome. As the year is AD 79 and the setting is Pompeii and Herculaneum, it’s no spoiler to reveal that a volcanic eruption of catastrophic proportions might be involved. And so we’re given one interpretation of events as experienced by Larius and his family and by Nonius.

The story isn’t really long enough to immerse us fully in events and also we’re kept detached from characters by the third-person narrative. Nevertheless, this is a gripping account of a truly terrifying disaster. And what makes it particularly painful to read at times is that Lindsey Davis draws on the evidence of archaeological remains – much of which is actually human – to put flesh on the bones of people whose final positions are known from their plaster casts and skeletons. People are included here who actually lived and who died during these awful moments of hell on earth. I found it impossible not to be moved.

These people that we meet are for me the more significant aspects of Vesuvius by Night and outdo the stories of Larius and Nonius. Maybe that’s because fiction can’t compete with the reality of what actually happened when the evidence of it is now so familiar and evocative. There’s also something about the story of Nonius, that I can’t mention as it would be a spoiler, that caused me pain.

Lindsey Davis knows her history and archaeology – this novella is packed full of the kind of details of which I can’t get enough and she uses them to great effect. Therefore, if you focus on the setting, the building of the tension, the power of our hindsight, the devastation of the eruptions, then you will be drawn right back to this terrifying time, so vividly described by one of our finest writers of historical fiction.

Other reviews
Enemies at Home
Deadly Election
The Graveyard of the Hesperides
The Third Nero
Pandora’s Boy