Ghost Wall (2018) feels like one of those dreams where a character is trapped in a room whose walls keep getting narrower and narrower. We sense the suffocation, the heat, and the walls seem so solid, so inescapable. But the truth is, those walls would crumble, if only we could wake up. They are only ghost walls, after all.
Set during a summer week in the early 1990’s, the story centres on Silvie, a seventeen-year-old girl who has been brought by her father, Bill, along with her mother, Alison, to an experimental archaeology expedition in rural Northumberland. The expedition, run by Professor Slade for three of his university students, aims at giving its participants ‘a flavour of Iron Age life’: in a reconstructed settlement, the group plans to live, for a few days, as the ancient Britons did, mimicking their living conditions, so as to immerse themselves in the past and to recreate the feeling of living in those times.
Silvie’s father, Bill, is a bus driver and amateur historian obsessed with prehistoric Britain. Gradually, though, we find out that his obsession is tinted with violence and strong xenophobia: Bill is an abusive man, who reveres the Iron Age as a symbol of the ‘purity’ of Britain culture before having been ‘sullied’ by foreigners. In a naïve, romanticised view of the past, he fervently longs for a return to the ‘good old days’: “He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.”
Meanwhile, he keeps his daughter and his wife under tight control, and frequently resorts to physical and psychological violence. Silvie is always thinking about what not to say or do, so as not to make him angry. She is torn between the desire to please him and the need to escape, and fantasises about getting away: “I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own. How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?”
Abuse is a kind of psychological haunting, as if a ghost were always hovering over our protagonist: Silvie is as trapped in her family dynamics, as she is by the archaeological expedition to which her father takes her. Bill’s xenophobia and isolationism are expressed not only in the kind of experiment he participates in (and in the way he does it), but also in the way he treats his daughter: he takes an unsympathetic view of the students in the group, and tries to keep her away from them, as if this could ‘contaminate’ her.
And, in a sense, he is right: by seeing her father through the eyes of these strangers, Silvie cannot help but question their family dynamics. Her longing for escape keeps getting stronger. While Bill is beating her, one day, she holds tight to the tree against which he had placed her, and thinks hard about the life inside it – the cells in its leaves, the berries ripening, “the implacable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of the roots below my feet and deep into the earth” – as if she were holding on for dear life, embracing the tree as if it were her own life, her will to live, pulsing inside.
She is constantly fearing that the rest of the group can see the spanking marks on her back, and panics every time someone says something that can make her father mad. She has a ghost wall right inside her mind, preventing her from interacting with her peers in a more carefree, natural way. Every interaction goes through the filter of what her father would do, or think, or feel.
The only thing strong enough to be able to break this wall in her mind is the affection she gradually develops for the other girl in the group, Molly, who forces her to see that there is something very wrong with Bill. As the days get hotter, not only the spartan way of living starts to weigh in on the characters, but also Bill’s intransigent and violent behaviour begins to break through his facade.
The atmosphere gets steadily more claustrophobic and oppressive, building up to a boiling point, where the set of ancient rituals the group is living under grows sinister and alarming, as if the violence of living in so close a touch with nature had gotten under the skin of some of the characters – and, in Bill’s case, had been completely brought out into the open, with everyone’s acceptance. The story culminates in the enactment of an ancient ritual that discloses not only Silvie’s complete vulnerability, but also reveals a very contemporary example of primitive behaviour. Bill’s quest for authenticity can only lead to civilization’s most elemental foundational feature: brutality, rather than purity.
Walls feature constantly throughout the book – the proximity to Hadrian’s Wall, the fall of the Berlin Wall -, and the title itself is a reference to a type of defensive wall made by Iron Age ancients, out of skulls and bones, to scare away their enemies. In this case, the building of the wall itself would involve some kind of sacrificial offering, or people would believe that the ghosts of the beloved ones would protect the tribe against the invaders.
The walls in this book are as full of ghosts as the violence they materialise. Are they an allegory for Brexit? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the walls themselves are ghosts coming back from the past; or maybe they have never really left and were always there, as an unspoken, invisible presence that resurfaces, time and again, only to demand their due, the very element from which such walls are made: the sacrifice of that which one treasures the most. Or maybe we can always choose to wake up and make the walls crumble, or pass through them, to the other side
That was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our reenactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds. – Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
I wrapped my arms around myself and took a deep breath of cool air that smelt of green things growing. Bridsong, something high and excitable in a nearby bush and the blackbird I’d heard yesterday in the oak tree. (…) My thoughts were beginning to flicker, my mind a bird against the window. – Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
About the book
- Granta Books, 2018, 152 p. Goodreads
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 144 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Granta Books for review.