Sarah Moss’s sixth novel, Ghost Wall, is a parable for our broken times, an eerie reminder that our darkest historical moments tend to repeat themselves in the presence of fear, irrationality, and a paranoid insistence on preserving a false idea of a more perfect past.
Ghost Wall’s seventeen-year-old protagonist, Silvie, is spending her summer holiday with her parents in the northern English county of Northumberland where her father Bill is taking part in an Iron Age re-enactment led by an archaeology professor and three of his students. By day, Bill is a bus driver, but his hobby – more accurately an obsession – is the study of early British history and the recapturing of the experience of an “original Britishness.” Her father, Silvie describes, “wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.”
In pursuit of this absurd nativist claim, Bill has dragged his wife and daughter along on the strange excursion, doggedly determined that their every activity – from communal sleeping on bunks, to wearing uncomfortable tunics, to hunting and gathering every morsel of food – be authentic to the time period. Silvie’s mother Alison has to persuade her husband to allow them to wear their own underwear, brush their teeth, and even use tampons: “Women managed well enough, he said, back in the day, without spending money on all that, ends up on the beach in the end, right mucky.”
The misguided zealotry that leads Bill to glorify the prehistoric past and its patriarchal structures drives his insistence on the brutal control of his family and the relegation of his wife and daughter to antiquated, subservient roles. A painful portrait of domestic abuse in this small family begins to emerge, with Silvie caught between her browbeaten mother and vicious father. She is careful not to reveal to the others in their re-enactment group the truth of her heartbreaking situation, but spending time in the company of the students, especially Molly, and hearing about their studies and travel plans, about their freedom and independence, make an envious Silvie wonder, “How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?”
For young Silvie, though, getting away seems unlikely. In one of the more chilling scenes in the novel, around the campfire one evening after the men return from a hike through Northumberland bogland, the group discusses the ancient practice of ritual sacrifice in the Iron Age. They take turns saying what each would choose to sacrifice to the bog. “I felt Dad’s gaze on me,” Silvie says, “and knew with a shiver what he was thinking. My daughter. Break her and stake her to the bog, stop her before she gets away.” Silvie’s complicated understanding and seeming acceptance of her father’s violent intentions toward her are explained by the fact that she believably and devastatingly conflates the violence with a kind of love, insisting that “people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.”
At only 144 pages long, Ghost Wall is a slip of a book, powerful in its tightly controlled prose and multiple understated themes. Most obviously, the novel is about abuse and the history of male violence against women – the opening pages effectively establish this historical thread and connect Silvie’s story to the past by describing the sacrifice of a young Iron Age girl to the bog. Yet there is also the moving theme of female alliance and resistance in the face of this violence, which for someone like Silvie proves lifesaving.
More broadly, and perhaps even more timely, Moss’s novel contains political undertones and motifs relevant to our nationalistic age of walls and border security. The ghost wall itself, recreated by the men in the story who “just want to kill things and talk about fighting,” is an ancient bulwark intended to ward off invaders. Some have pointed out convincingly that Ghost Wall is in fact a Brexit tale, a warning of the dangers of isolationist policies predicated on the desire to reclaim a bygone (and never actually existing) pure, homogeneous state – an “original Britishness.” It’s impossible to read this story, however, without also thinking about the ongoing battle over the wall on the southern U.S. border and the foolishness of men who, just like Silvie’s father and men of every historical period reaching back to the Iron Age and beyond, have sought to control and protect what they believe is theirs alone.
By Sarah Moss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 8, 2019
Sarah Moss is a novelist, travel writer and academic, teaching in the University of Warwick’s Writing Program. She is the author of six novels, a book-length work of non-fiction about living in Reykjavik, and academic books on Romantic-era British literature, food history, and gender.