Book Review: “Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss

Blurb & Info

In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.

For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs — particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.

The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?

A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the “primitive minds” of our ancestors.

Published: September 20, 2018

Publisher: Granta Books

Pages: 152

Series: standalone

Review

This review contains minor spoilers for Ghost Wall.

I read this book as part of a book club with my friend R., who has very different taste in fiction than I do and who helps me read books that I would ordinarily hesitate to pick up. (R. is also a talented artist, so consider checking out his Instagram and commissioning him if you can!) Beyond R.’s glowing praise, however, Ghost Wall was also longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and after reading it I can definitely say that its spot on that list was deserved. However, it took me a good bit of thought to award it five out of five stars within the framework of my own reading experience; it is an intensely uncomfortable book. It is not cozy. It is not nice. It deals with heavy, horrible topics in a way that feels like a festering wound is being sliced open with a knife of crudely knapped flint — but at the same time, that wound needs to be opened so that it can be cleaned of infection and allowed to heal.

Content Warnings for Ghost Wall include repeated and explicit scenes of domestic violence, child abuse, misogyny, racism, and processing animal carcasses for food and ritual purposes.

The total number of pages for Ghost Wall is listed as a mere 152 on the goodreads website, but that includes the acknowledgements and additional praise at the end — the actual story draws to a close at page 130 on my Kindle edition. This book, like a life during Britain’s Iron Age roughly 2,000 years ago, is brutal and short. I think it works very well as a brutal, short book, and Silvie is our unfortunate protagonist. Ghost Wall is told in the first person perspective through her eyes, and this POV works incredibly well; her entangled, contradictory thoughts on her relationship with her father are heartbreaking, and there are suggestions — suggestions which Silvie herself either cannot or doesn’t dare elaborate upon even in her inmost thoughts, and which we as readers see and wonder at — of queer desire for one of the other women taking part in the expedition.

Moss seems to balance on the knife’s edge between over-rich, dreamlike prose and outright grotesquery; through Silvie’s eyes, everything is described in extremely vivid detail, from the scent and texture of myrtle blossoms to the process of skinning and butchering a rabbit carcass. Human interaction is not spared the same treatment; with less than ten speaking characters and a plot that spans roughly a week within an area of only a few square miles, every interaction is cause for analysis, and every glance, every fidget, every scrap of dialogue has layers of meaning.

Patriarchy is obvious here, perpetuated by the male characters in ways that are overtly chafed against by the women at some times, and at other times are more subtle but no less menacing. Likewise, there is also a subsurface class struggle going on between Silvie’s family, who are working class, and the professor and students, who have more privilege. Though all speaking characters are white, there is a heavy punch of racism when, during a fireside discussion on Picts vs. Romans, Silvie’s father says, “[the Picts] put up quite a fight and after all sent [the Romans] packing in the end, and there weren’t dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?” Silvie’s father’s interest in the Iron Age isn’t from intellectual curiosity, but instead draws from British ethno-nationalism and his own brutality. We see him relish acts of violence and see him force that violence upon his daughter, whether as a direct victim of it or as a witness who is not allowed to close her eyes and turn away.

That violence intertwines with the violence of Iron Age ritual sacrifice in a horrifying climax that left me frantic and buzzing with adrenaline inside my skin, and acutely aware of my own mortality. However, I wrote earlier that reading this book was like cutting open an infected wound with a stone knife; Moss might have wielded the knife, but she also bore the bandage, and the ending of Ghost Wall is not a betrayal. I feel like I’ve just woken up from a beautifully horrific fever dream, and I can’t decide whether or not it was a nightmare. It is, without a doubt, powerful.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5 stars


Here is another review of Ghost Wall (with more significant spoilers) from Leah Schnelbach of Tor.com

Here is a list of charities and organizations that support victims of domestic violence in the UK.

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