Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta, 2018)
Teenage Silvie is on an archeological reenactment of prehistoric times, with her mother Alison, and father Bill, a small group of University students and their rather off hand professor (I imagine him as one who would like to appear on TV, but hasn’t quite managed it…). The Berlin Wall has just come down, so it’s 1989/1990 – there are no mobile phones, no immediate ways of communicating outside the group. The experiment takes place on the moors in the north-east, I imagine near Hadrian’s wall and within tent walls and Iron Age round house walls. Walls/division – both physical and metaphorical – loom large in this story which also touches on many questions – for what is a short book – about gender, class, identity control and opportunity.
Bill, Silvie’s Dad, is a bus driver and an amateur archaeologist. He’s clearly a frustrated man, someone who probably should have had, a higher education but didn’t (we never find out why not, but we can make guesses). He corresponds with professors, fat envelopes arrive at the house and he pores over them, and his shelf of ‘digging books’. When he does this is wife and daughter give him a wide berth. But Bill is a man who holds questionable views – his fascination with ancient Britain (he named his daughter Sulevia, after a local water goddess) – filtered through his own particular understanding of the history and archaeology, informs them. He’s a rumbling storm of a man – the lid, we can tell, is only just holding his anger in most of the time.
There’s a lot of archaeology in this, which I loved. I too have an enduring fascination of bog bodies, ever since we studied ‘Pete Marsh’ in secondary school (he gets a mention here) and the Scandinavian bog bodies at University. The description at the start – imagined events at an ancient sacrificial ceremony is so familiar – the girl, her rope of hair, the drums…is this a scene from long ago in Denmark, or not? From the very start there’s a troubling subtext rumbling along as to what might happen to someone at the end of this story – but despite this sense of dread I kept reading, long into the night.
As the ‘living in the Iron Age’ project continues we meet the students, a young woman, (Molly) and three young men, who breezily describe young lives freer than Silvie can really imagine. How does a person get to Berlin, she muses? Silvie strikes up an uneasy friendship with self assured Molly – who is quite happy to flout the rules and go to the Spar for ice cream and a sliced loaf in her Iron age garb, while Alison slaves over a campfire making stew and flatbreads from foraged ingredients. It is Molly who challenges Bill (how does she have the confidence to talk back to her father that way, wories Sylivie, doesn’t she understand what will happen?). It is Molly who eventually discovers what is going on in Silvie’s family.
Eventually the group (well, most of them) build the “Ghost Wall” of the title, and the final events play out. It’s a study in group dynamics – I am still not sure whether some of the characters would actually have been caught up as they are in the final act; one in particular – Dan – seems extremely concerned, but goes along with it (here there are echoes of the Stanford Prison experiment). These final pages could have very easily descended into melodrama, but instead the tension’s kept up to the very end, and because we experience this, and every other event in this disturbing tale, in the first person I found it enormously affecting.
Ghost Wall is published by Granta Books, available in hardback from 20th September 2018. Thanks to Granta for providing a review copy via NetGalley.