Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology.
Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life.
Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.
I mentioned in my post on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist that I had read and was still processing Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’ strangely sinister novella about teenage Silvia and an experimental archaeology exercise that goes badly wrong. If I’m completely honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it.
Ghost Wall is a strange story. The novella has a haunting lyricism that lingers long after the final pages but, despite its many excellent qualities, I can’t help feeling that there was something missing from my reading experience with it.
The undoubted strength of the book is the writing. Moss has a beautiful sense of style, creating stunningly lyrical sentences from deceptively simple prose. Her descriptions of the natural world; the landscape of the moor and the beach, is majestic, and there is a northern lyricism to the novel in the cadence of Silvie’s voice and her connection with this landscape. Take, for example, this passage, in which Silvie and some of her fellow students go foraging:
“We followed the green-signposted Public Footpath along a stone wall and over a stile towards the moor. As the hill rose, we could see Hadrian’s Wall drawn across the next rise as if it was made of something different from the rest of the landscape, as if someone had drawn it in marker pen on a photo. Dad and I had walked its whole length, Newcastle to Carlisle, at Easter the previous year, and I knew we were near the best bit now, the section where steep ground and sudden drops made a millennium’s worth of northern farmers not bother themselves to pull down milecastles and miles of dressed stone to build sheep-pens and byres. I half closed my eyes, imagined hearing on the wind the Arabic conversations of the Syrian soldiers who’d dug the ditches and hoisted the stones two thousand years ago.”
The interconnection between past and present is a strong theme of the novel, as Silvie and her fellows become ever more intertwined with the lives of the Iron Age settlers they are supposedly interpreting. Amidst the beauty of this desolate landscape, lie hidden acts of violence that threaten to play out in the modern day.
This should make for a tense and claustrophobic reading experience, as the past and the present become ever more blurred, yet I found Ghost Wall strangely flat at times. At the start of the novel, as Silvie’s relationship with her difficult father and troubled mother becomes apparent, you could cut the narrative with a knife. Yet after a violent explosion at the midpoint of the novel, all that tension deflated and I felt that the story never really regained its former momentum – it seemed by turns meandering and then racing, rushing towards a conclusion that was both inevitable and strangely unsatisfying.
If this review seems a little vague, its because I really don’t want to give away any of the plot. At just under 150 pages, Ghost Wall is a spare novel and, for anyone thinking of reading it, it really is best enjoyed without spoilers. And it will most definitely wrap you up whilst reading it – I read it over two sittings, then spent about a fortnight digesting what I had read before I felt I could form a coherent opinion about it.
Because, for all its flaws, Ghost Wall is a mesmerising and accomplished book. As I said at the start of the review, it has a lingering quality that is hard to pin down. Yes, the ending is hasty and the characters occasionally little more than pencil sketches, but the overall effect retains a surprising force and impact. The overall moral of the book may be a little heavy-handed but the depiction of a complex father-daughter relationship, marred by both a strange kind of love and violent oppression, is one of the best I’ve read. Ghost Wall certainly deserves its place on the Women’s Prize longlist – like the ghosts that flitter through its page, it haunts the reader long after you’ve turned the final page.