The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Ghost Wall
Ghost Wall
A Novel
by Sarah Moss

Paperback (31 Dec 2019), 144 pages.
Publisher: Picador
ISBN-13: 9781250234957
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

A taut, gripping tale of a young woman and an Iron Age reenactment trip that unearths frightening behavior.

The light blinds you; there's a lot you miss by gathering at the fireside.

In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.

For two weeks, the length of her father's vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie's father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs―particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.

The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?

A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the "primitive minds" of our ancestors.


Excerpt
Ghost Wall

THEY BRING HER OUT. Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light. The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet. There will be more stones, before the end.

She stumbles. They hold her up. No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming. From deep inside her body, from the cord in her spine and the wide blood-ways under the ribs, from the emptiness of her womb and the rising of her chest, she shakes. A body in fear. They lead the fearful body over the turf and along the track, her bare feet numb to most of the pain of rock and sharp rushes. Chanting rises, the drums sound slow, unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart. Others follow, wrapped against the cold, dark figures processing into the dusk.

On arrival, they strip her. It is easy; they have put her into a loose tunic. Against the low red light of the winter sunset, her body is white as chalk, solid against the wisps of fog and the tracery of reed. She tries to cover herself with her hands, and is not allowed. One holds her while the other binds her. Her breathing is accelerating, its condensation settling on her face. Exhaled breaths hang like spirits above each person's head, slowly dissolving into the air. The men turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learnt to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn't look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.

She is whimpering, keening. The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.

There are no surprises.

They place another rope around her neck, hold the knife up to the setting sun as it edges behind the rocks. What is necessary is on hand, the sharpened willow withies, the pile of stones, the small blades and the large. The stick for twisting the rope.

Not yet. There is an art to holding her in the place she is entering now, on the edge of the water-earth, in the time and space between life and death, too late to return to the living and not time, not yet, not for a while, to be quite dead.


DARKNESS WAS A LONG TIME coming. The fire crackled, transparent against the trees, its purpose no more, no less, than ceremonial. We had been pushed away from each other by the heat that no one wanted. Woodsmoke stung my eyes and the rock dug into my backside, the rough tunic itchy under my thighs. I slipped my foot out of its moccasin and pointed my toes towards the fire for no reason, to see how it felt. You can't be cold, my father said, though it was he who had lit the fire and insisted that we gather around it. I can, I thought, if I've a mind, but I said, no, Dad, I'm not cold. Through the flames, I could see the boys, talking to each other and drawn back almost into the trees as if they were thinking of melting into the woods and creeping off somewhere to do some boys' thing at which I would probably be more skilled. My mother sat on the stone where my father had told her to sit, tunic rucked unbecomingly above her fat white knees, staring into the flames as people do; it was boring and my father was holding us all there, bored, by force of will. Where do you think you're going, he said as I stood up. I need, I said, to pee, and he grunted and glanced towards the boys, as if the very mention of biological functions might incite their adolescent passions. Just make sure you go out of sight, he said.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Moss. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How would you describe the dynamic in Silvie's family when the novel opens? How about Silvie's attitude specifically? In what ways does your view of this family evolve as the novel progresses? Are there particular points in the story that shift these views?
  2. In what ways do you see contemporary views of culture and behavior exhibited during the re-enactment? Identify a few examples.
  3. Silvie sneaks out early in the morning to relieve herself and remarks, "without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a person's movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman." In what ways do you see this notion play out in the novel? How do you see Silvie's premise contradicted?
  4. When Silvie asks Molly why she's not taking the re-enactment experience, "seriously," Mollie notes, "I just think a lot it's boys playing in the woods. Your dad and Jim, have you noticed, they're not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting, why would I take it seriously?" In turn, Silvie's gut reaction is, "because they are in charge... because there will be consequences if you don't." How would you describe the differences in how Mollie and Silvie perceive the power dynamics in the group?" How do you think Dan and Pete may perceive this dynamic?
  5. In what ways does Molly challenge the status quo? How do the other characters react to her attempts to disrupt their sense of "normalcy?"
  6. Describe your interpretation of Mom. In what ways is she a victim of her circumstances? Are there ways in which she is complicit in the abuse enacted by Silvie's dad?
  7. The bog serves as both a destructive force and preserver of what people most care for and revere. Spend some time unpacking this image of "the bog." Why do you think it plays such a central role in the novel? How does it interplay with the notion of time? How about hierarchy?
  8. Identify 2-3 instances of when characters project customs or beliefs onto the past. In what ways does this practice deflect or justify what's happening in the present?
  9. How do class dynamics play into the interactions among the characters? How might you extrapolate these tensions to the present day?
  10. How do you interpret the refrain, "people don't hurt what they don't love." In what ways is this phrase twisted or abused throughout Ghost Wall?
  11. How do you think you would respond if you were in Silvie's situation when her dad and the Prof present the idea of simulating a sacrifice?
  12. Discuss the portrayal of gender roles in the novel. In what ways do class distinctions and opportunity interact with gender in the story?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Picador. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

In this slim, psychologically-taut novel, a teenage girl's historical reenactment trip with her parents launches a coming-of-age rebellion.

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A suspenseful, literary coming-of-age novel set in rural Northumberland, England, Ghost Wall tackles potent themes of feminine power, rage and resistance, toxic masculinity, and survival. Although set in the 21st century, Sarah Moss contrasts primitive ways with contemporary attitudes to build tension throughout the narrative. The short prologue describes a brutal ritual sacrifice that happened in the area in ancient times. Moss then shifts to the present to introduce her protagonist, but this violence still hangs in the air. 16-year-old Silvie is assisting her parents on a historical reenactment project, guiding a team of young adult archaeology students (Peter, Dan and Molly) and their professor Jim on a short course to practice traditional bushcraft. This involves adopting the clothing and tools of the ancient Picts who thrived in Northumberland before the Romans conquered the region in the mid-first century A.D.

Silvie reluctantly follows her parents' demands, although she yearns for autonomy. In normal life, Dad scrapes a living as a bus driver; but his work holidays are devoted to being an amateur historian and reenactment guide. Mum, usually a grocery store clerk, is in charge of cooking and cleanup on the trip. Silvie has learned from earliest childhood how to survive: hunting, gathering and enduring her father's tempers. His physical punishments with his Iron Age leather belt are particularly cruel, and Silvie's spirit sparks with rebellion.

It went on longer than usual, as if the open air invigorated him, as if he liked the setting. I thought about the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made, about the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end.

Much of the suspense in this short, artfully crafted novel is subtle, yet distinctly perceptible. It is revealed through Silvie's vivid and precocious point-of-view, and her inner thoughts often contradict what she dares to speak aloud.

Mum, what about dinner, I said, and tea? It'll be whatever you gather this morning, she said, maybe fish, there must be berries, this time of year. You don't, I thought, gather fish, there has to be murder done and you won't be the one doing it, Mum, but instead of saying so I put a couple more kindling sticks on the fire and one of the nice dry logs the students had chopped as part of their archaeological experience.

Accustomed to being isolated from her peers, Silvie guides the archaeology students through bog and heather seeking nuts, bilberries, mushrooms and mussels. Pete, Dan and Molly challenge Silvie's sense of boundaries; they don't hide their puzzlement when she obeys her father's demands. Dad takes pride in his skills with ancient bushcraft and holds a disdainful attitude about the "spoiled" students and their professor's book-learning. He uses Silvie as a role model and pushes her to demonstrate how to use a flint blade to gut and bone rabbits. The social dynamics, characters and brilliant descriptions keep tension splinter-sharp throughout.

Silvie is attracted by Molly's free spirit. One blistering hot day they're foraging and come to a swimming spot, where Molly strips down (in front of the guys) to swim: free, naked, wild and lovely. Molly also sneaks away from camp to go to the pub or to buy junk food, and she encourages Sylvie to break out of her shell. Sylvie is fearful, yet follows along for the adventure.

We do have to do some foraging, I said, they'll be wondering where we are. I do have to get something to eat, Molly said, something with some taste and energy in it, I reckon I'd rather live in the shadow of nuclear war with ice cream and crisps and conditioner than in primitive purity with half-ground grains and rabbits' guts.

Silvie is preoccupied—and rightfully so—with what the land provides versus what humans take. She comes off as an eco-warrior, keen to conserve, not gathering more than necessary, and tuned into the land's patterns and cycles. Yet, she is uncertain of her place in the modern world, where she fits in, whether she will ever attend university, or even whether she wants to. In Ghost Wall, much emotional energy vibrates beneath the surface of scene and dialogue. The author asks profound questions about what remains—ghosts, artifacts, music, stories—when an entire culture is disrupted. Archaeology in the region of Hadrian's Wall has unearthed many traces of the Picts who once roamed wild in Britain: tools, dwellings, clothing and burial rites. Prized finds include bog bodies (corpses preserved intact for centuries by the chemistry of the bog), some of which are believed to be evidence of ritual sacrifice.

The novel pivots when Dad and the professor decide to re-enact a ritual bog sacrifice, supposedly once performed with a woven reed "ghost wall" and eerie music to terrify Roman invaders. The chosen victim for their re-enactment proves—no surprise!— reluctant to roleplay. Rather than spoil the very extraordinary and satisfying ending, I'll simply urge readers to savor this eerie, page-turner of a novel. While history has been told for the most part from male-dominated vantage points, Ghost Wall explores traces of divine female wisdom, and women's marvelous, often secret ways of nurturing and sheltering each other. Sarah Moss has created a cinematic jewel of fiction, sure to spark conversation for its literary beauty as well as potent themes.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

NPR
Ghost Wall is such a weird and distinctive story: It could be labeled a supernatural tale, a coming-of-age chronicle, even a timely meditation on the various meanings of walls themselves. All this, packed into a beautifully written story of 130 pages. No wonder I read it twice within one week.

Evening Standard (UK)
Moss truthfully conveys the way teenage girls make friends ... In just 149 pages Moss does a remarkable job at building an engaging, textured world and Silvie is a likeable heroine. You root for her - and she might just surprise you.

The Scotsman (UK)
Moss slowly ratchets up the tension, much as the Iron Age people they are studying used to slowly twist a length of rope around the necks of the human sacrifices they made, up on the nearby moors.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
The 'ghost wall' of the title becomes a powerful metaphor for the invisible boundaries that exist between different groups of people, not just in the past but also at the present time. Sarah Moss combines her research interests in food, place and material culture to good effect.

The Observer (UK)
Sarah Moss is fascinated by bodies and isolation, and by bodies in isolation...What provokes and perpetuates that capacity for harm, and what powers a mystical belief in its propitiatory value, remains eerily unclear, but no less urgent a concern for us than for our ghostly forebears.

The Times (UK)
Ghost Wall, a slim but meaty book, is like nothing I have read before; its creepy atmosphere has stayed with me all summer ... Moss combines exquisite nature writing, original characters and a cracking thriller plot to make a wonderful literary curiosity. It deserves to pull her out of the bog of under-appreciation and on to the prize podiums.

The Independent (UK)
[Ghost Wall] is further proof that [Moss is] one of our very best contemporary novelists. How she hasn't been nominated for the Man Booker Prize continues to mystify me – and this year is no exception ... a gripping narrative ... It's an intoxicating concoction; inventive, intelligent, and like no other author's work.

The Observer (UK)
Stunningly good, a tightly written, powerful book about archaeology and Englishness.

The Spectator, "Books of the Year"
[Sarah Moss is] this divided country's most urgent novelist. Her themes: the cycles of history, male absurdity, the forms female subversion may take, in irony, sickness and sacrifice. It helps that she's absurdly topical, and that she's funny.

The Mail on Sunday (UK)
Moss's finely balanced novel combines a strong sense of the natural world with a growing atmosphere of menace, interspersed with wry humour.

The Bookseller (UK)
What I admire ... is Moss's ability to find an emotional connection with characters in the far distant past ... Eerie and gripping.

Booklist
Tackling issues such as misogyny and class divides, Moss packs a lot into her brief but powerful narrative.

Kirkus Reviews
A thorny, thoroughly original novel about human beings' capacity for violence.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The novel's highlight is Silvie, a perfectly calibrated consciousness that is energetic and lonely and prone to sharp and memorable observations ... This is a haunting, astonishing novel.

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Hadrian's Wall: Remains of a Fallen Empire

Section of Hadrian's Wall featuring the remains of Castle NickSarah Moss' novel Ghost Wall is set in Northumberland, Britain where Emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) ordered his troops to build a wall about AD 122 when the region was under Roman rule. It's estimated that the wall was built over a six year span by at least 15,000 men. Excavations reveal that many sections of the wall were originally ditches and mounds of turf, later fortified with cut stone blocks. During its construction and occupation, the wall was maintained and patrolled by legions of Roman foot soldiers, horsemen, conscripts from other conquered lands, and their families. In that era, the Roman Empire stretched from present-day Iraq across Europe and Northern Africa. Under the rule of Julius Caesar, Romans explored Britannia in 55 BC, but did not fully occupy the region until after Emperor Claudius crossed the channel circa 42 AD.

Hadrian's Wall established the edge of conquest and marked a line between Roman occupied land and the unconquered tribal lands to the north. Pict tribal resistance to the Romans ignited several wars, and provoked Emperor Antonius Pius (AD 86-161) to build another wall farther to the north (in present-day Scotland). Now called the Antonine Wall, it was built mostly of ditches and turf atop sandstone foundations. Neither wall proved effective in quelling tribal rebellion. Hadrian's Wall was abandoned upon the collapse of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, yet endures as one of the largest Roman artifacts on the planet.

Today, ruined sections of stone stretch 73 miles from coast to coast, along with numerous forts, observation towers and guard posts. In addition to the 17 larger forts, many of which are still standing, there were around 80 small forts along the wall, called milecastles, with two guard posts in between each. (Most of the milecastles have been lost to the ages.) It's estimated that most of the wall measured about 3 meters wide and nearly 5 meters tall. Many stones have been repurposed by farmers and builders over the centuries, so that in some sections the wall is barely visible. In 1987, Hadrian's Wall was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some parts are under National Trust protection (which aims to preserve and enhance nature and historical sites), while most remain under private ownership. Many organizations collaborate to preserve this significant attraction for scholars and tourists, and several museums exist at Roman settlements along the ancient wall, including Vindolanda, Housesteads, Birdoswald, Chesters and Corbridge.

Active archaeology projects continue to survey Hadrian's Wall. Important finds include bones, coins, tools, clothing, pottery and altars carved with Roman designs. Individuals seeking a hands-on experience volunteer every year in various archaeological and restoration projects sponsored by universities and the historic sites.

Public trails, including the national Hadrian's Wall Path and the longer Hadrian's Cycleway, offer expansive views and all-ages access to the echoes of history.

Hadrian's Wall, courtesy of English Heritage

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Karen Lewis

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