Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall Sarah MossGhost Wall’ is Sarah Moss’s sixth novel which tells the story of Silvie, a teenage girl spending her summer in a remote area of Northumberland taking part in an “experiential” archaeological experiment in which the participants attempt to recreate the exact living conditions of the original Iron Age occupants of the site. However, this is not a gentle comedy in the style of the BBC series ‘Detectorists’. Silvie’s father, Bill, is a bus driver and amateur historian who has obsessive ideas about the “purity” of ancient Britons and his domineering personality and prejudices begin to take over the trip led by archaeology professor Jim Slade accompanied by three of his students, Molly, Dan and Pete.

‘Ghost Wall’ is even more unsettling than Moss’s debut novel Cold Earth which also features an archaeological field trip in extreme conditions. It has been described by a reviewer for the Irish Times as a “Brexit fable” and the central theme of division is explored in many forms. The title takes its name from a structure topped with human skulls constructed as a means of psychological warfare and the story opens with the sacrificial murder of a young woman from the time when the site was occupied. Other physical walls also feature prominently with events taking place near Hadrian’s Wall and not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There is an oppressively tense atmosphere at the site and it soon becomes clear that the family dynamics are controlled by Bill’s misogyny and cruelty towards Silvie and his wife, Alison, who spend much of their time trying to appease him. While Jim is prepared to be more flexible in terms of the accuracy of the group’s reenactment of Iron Age life, Bill is fanatical about authenticity and expects nothing less than total immersion in the experience, the consequences of which are laid bare in the terrifying conclusion. Meanwhile, Silvie is attracted to self-assured Molly and the pair make forbidden trips to a 7/11 supermarket still dressed in their Iron Age tunics in order to stock up on supplies of ice cream. However, Silvie still feels the need to defend her father when she feels that her family are being mocked by the students from more privileged backgrounds.

Overall, ‘Ghost Wall’ is an insightful state-of-the-nation novel and while it is the shortest of Moss’s novels to date at just 160 pages in length, it is also the most chilling. Many thanks to Granta for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

  1. I have pre-ordered this book – does not get published here until Jan. Reading your reviee is a great preview. Thanks.

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  2. I loved this. You’re so right, it’s really unsettling and perfectly paced but I also thought it was beautifully written.

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  3. I’m eagerly awaiting my library hold. I just read Cold Earth earlier in the year and it’s interesting to me that she’s returned to the archaeology theme.

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  4. Like all her books, Ghost Wall requires the reader to suspend any previous convictions and to simply go with what is written on the page. Though this is a very short novel, it sets up an entirely believable and yet chilling scenario, involving a family engaged in an Iron Age re-enactment.
    Early scenes demonstrating the tedious business of living like hunter-gatherers when there is a shop down the road, are both realistic and slightly humorous; but as the story weaves its way on towards the climax, it draws on both contemporary anxieties and abuses and indeed gets darker and darker.
    Sarah Moss has achieved a brilliant gem of a novel, short and gripping.

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  5. This sounds like an impressive book that could be both a gripping story and a story that would make you think. It also sounds dark enough that I know I’m unlikely to pick it up soon, but I’ll still keep it in mind and might get to it eventually 🙂

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