I honestly don’t know how I feel about Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; I’m finding it difficult to organise my thoughts and feelings but try I shall! This is the first book I have read by Sarah Moss, I’ve heard so many people talk about how much they love her work and thought it was high time that I formed my own opinion.
Synopsis: Set during an unusually hot week in summer in rural Northumberland, this is the story of 17-year-old Silvie, whose father has decided his family will take part in a university research project to recreate and experience Ancient Briton life – an exploration of rituals, foraging and very stripped back living conditions. Silvie’s working-class father, an amateur historian when not driving buses, has approached this experiment in all seriousness, passionate about the past and intent on making it an authentic experience at all costs. His intensity causes increasing friction between the participants and a dark sense of unease develops – his opinions and actions have far reaching consequences. It is also the story of a nameless Iron Age girl, who is sacrificed as a part of an ancient ritual in the opening scenes and how her death weaves into the characters’ contemporary narrative.
What I loved/ found intriguing…
The portrayal of the natural world: Moss creates an in-depth sense of place so that I felt I was walking the paths of the present-day characters as well as their ancestors over two thousand years ago. Nature is that close, that powerful, that rich and that crucial to survival. I also really liked that Moss sets this story just before the explosion in technology that took over towards the end of the 90s. Mobiles, laptops and tablets are missing and this is such a clever way of allowing the plot to feel contemporary in so many other ways whilst also creating a sense of intense nature-focused isolation.
The complex, deep and often twisted daughter father relationship: This was so interesting to explore and figure out. There is pride and connection and even fondness as well as manipulation, coercion and violence. It makes for uncomfortable reading and challenges readers to examine our own perceptions.
Silvie as a character: I loved Silvie as she comes of age, how her strong passion for nature and curiosity about the world beyond her experiences develops and how she finds her sexual identity too. I think Moss portrays Silvie’s position so well as a young woman still dependent on her parents in terms of everyday life and still with a need for approval yet also longing for independence and the opportunities to challenge others and express the person she is becoming.
The northerness of Silvie’s family: I could literally hear the voice of Silvie and her father as they spoke and really connected with the snippets of their life back home. In connection with their background, I also really liked the questions Moss explores regarding class and education- gritty, relevant stuff indeed.
The intertwining of past and present until they merge: This was so well written; the haunting, eerie connection between Silvie and the Iron Age girl gives me the shivers just thinking about it and it is so subtly crafted that it never tips into a fictional time travel type plot device. The exploration of what being British actually means in terms of the present interpreting the past is also so poignant when viewed from our Brexit-filled days. Silvie’s father is intent on finding his ideal “Britishness” away from any outside influences – he is desperate for a sense of place and power and channels all of this into a project, which ironically cannot be as pure as he desperately wants it to be because of the very present-day rooted students involved and the fact that the Britons were made up anyone present at that point in time – mostly immigrants in fact.
The suspense: I really enjoyed the way Moss makes us constantly question what is in fact going on, only giving a tiny bit away at a time and leaving so much to our interpretation. The dynamics between the characters in general also adds brilliantly to this suspense, the friction and intensity becomes increasingly tangible as the story progresses.
The elements I personally struggled with…
The mother: The portrayal of Silvie’s mother left me angry and so frustrated as she felt stereotypical and I couldn’t get near her as a character because of this. This was such an opportunity to go deeper than the trope of the abused wife, who stands by as her child is abused, who often tries to lessen the impact yet so frequently makes excuses for her husband’s behaviour.
The violence and coercion displayed by the father: This is very much a personal perspective as I try to stay away from this kind of violence in my reading due to my own experiences. And because of this, Ghost Wall often felt too personal and hard to digest. From an objective perspective, I know there is a point to the violence being there, it certainly adds to the narrative’s power and produces a very visceral reading response.
It. Was. Too. Short: Yes, I know it is a novella and a tight narrative structure has been crafted on purpose– it grips and takes you along on a tense ride, leaving you feeling almost breathless at the end. I read it in an afternoon. but there was so much more I was desperate to find out more about. Whilst some themes and events are wonderfully rich and detailed like the landscape, others are only briefly mentioned, meaning that sometimes I was absolutely gripped and other times I was left feeling detached from the narrative.
The dialogue doesn’t have speech punctuation: Although this is a minor stylistic point, it never the less affected my experience as I was unsure who was speaking at times and, as a result, had to reread certain sections, losing the flow of the text in the process.
So, what do I think about Ghost Wall overall? It was haunting, deeply disturbing, mesmerizing and thought provoking. But at the same time there just wasn’t enough depth for me, I wanted so much more, and the abuse was hard to read on a personal level. One thing I can say with certainty is that Ghost Wall has stayed with me since I finished reading it; I’m still thinking about it, digesting, questioning – and that in my opinion is a sign of a strong piece of writing! I first marked it as a 3-star read on Goodreads but have since changed it to a 4 for this reason and I will definitely pick up another Sarah Moss book to see where it takes me.
P.S. I read a really interesting interview with Sarah Moss about her motivation behind Ghost Wall over on the Waterstones blog. Here is the link, it is well worth a read.