‘Ghost 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.