Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a beautifully written short novel, more a novella at 160 pages. Set in the Nineties it is the story of a re-enactment conducted by a family and a university professor and his students who live in the woods in Northumberland to recreate the lifestyle of Iron Age man. Class issues run throughout; accent, education, north/south, but it is also a time of changes embodied in the character and changing sensibilities of seventeen year old Silvie.
Told completely through the viewpoint of Silvie it juxtaposes the harsh Iron Age life with her own upbringing by authoritarian self-taught father Bill and bland mother Alison who has surrendered to her husband’s will, with the life of the Iron Age bog people. In almost a closed room setting more familiar from crime fiction, the group is thrown into close proximity living in difficult conditions with minimal food. As the story progresses the group becomes divided. The two adult men disappear to work on their ‘projects’ while Silvie’s mum stays in camp to cook and sit around. This leaves the students to their own devices to forage, harvest mussels and skinny dip. It is a haunting story as Silvie tries to mollify her father, who demands exacting behaviour and manners, while student Molly struggles to understand Silvie’s subservience. Tensions grow as Molly encourages Silvie to defy her father. Bill is a traditionalist, he admires Britain’s distant past as a preferred alternative to the modern world.
Ghost Wall is a creeping tale as your nerves tauten waiting for Silvie to be in trouble again, at times I wished for more about her parallel Bog girl. There are clever moments of relief such as the girls’ visit to the local Spar shop for cake and ice cream to relieve the tedium of gruel and rabbit. I was left with the feeling that Moss tried to shoehorn too many issues into a small space – class, male chauvinism, racism, idealism, sexuality, even Brexit, so I was left feeling she had a list of things to mention.
This is an unusual novel, beautifully written. A chilling read. Tense, but not a thriller. The climax when it happens is over quickly and I was left wanting more; the last page came as a surprise and I felt rather disappointed.
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