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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – national identity and sacrifice in the good old days

Ghost Wall opens with a human sacrifice. She is led, unblindfolded (because she knows what is coming), to the sound of chanting and drums, “unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart.” Her family and neighbours look on as the men take a blade and cut away her hair, and then place a rope around her neck. “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.”

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss book cover
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The past is reenacted in Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’ sixth novel, a post-Brexit allegory that manages to say more in under 150 pages than most epics. Converging with its ideas on the nature of national identity expressed through a reliving of the Iron Age rituals of pre-historic Britain is contemporary domestic abuse and the subjugation of women. Taken along themes of borders and separation, experts juxtaposed with non-experts, Moss has created a dense novel that should ideally be read in a single sitting. Given the vice-like grip it will likely have you in, you will have little choice.

The narrator is 17-year-old Silvie, short for Sulevia (a name her dad chose, after an “Ancient British” goddess), who spends a few hot summer days in Northumberland with her parents. On the whim of her racist and misogynist father (Moss is a tad more subtle than I am), they’ve gone on a journey of “experiential archaeology” with a professor and a few of his students, as they attempt to live like Iron Age Britons and recreate the past.

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Her father wanted Silvie to have a “proper native British name” and we begin to understand his fascination with British pre-history. The notion of Britishness is debunked early on by the students accompanying them: “he likes the idea that…if he goes back far enough he’ll find someone who wasn’t a foreigner. You know it’s not really British, right? [It’s] a Roman corruption of a lost British word.” In a land like Britain, which has been inhabited by people far and wide, whether from immigration or invasion, what does being “British” mean? How far back to we need to go until we find an uncorrupted Brit?

In this exchange, Silvie is being talked down to by student Pete. Unlike the professor and his students, Silvie is not from an academic or well-off family. Her father’s interest in pre-history is satisfied when he is not driving buses for a living and her mother, when she isn’t at home cooking or cleaning, works in the checkout of a supermarket. There are many walls (or divides) in Ghost Wall, one being between the “posh” and educated southerners, and Silvie and her working-class family who the students consider to be from the “up north”. “I had not understood until meeting the students that we lived ‘up north’, that we were ‘Northerners’. Up from where?”

Ghost Wall is very clearly a “Brexit novel” but manages to be so without ever needing to broach the subject (and is set decades prior to that fateful referendum). This divide between the two groups (though the groups connect with one another in different ways as the book progresses) is reminiscent of the “Britain has had enough of experts” campaign line used by the Brexiteers. They all have their different reasons for being on this little trip through the past. Silvie’s father is obsessed by ancient Britons and longs for a time when things were better, when we were all less spoilt. The professor is there with his students as an academic exercise, which was never meant to be more than a bit of fun. Silvie and her mother are there because they are forced to by the father.

Silvie’s father both physically and mentally abuses Silvie and her mother. The students, especially Molly, are shocked by some of the things he says and the way he bosses Silvie and her mother around. It is sad, but Silvie barely sees anything wrong – this is how her life has always been – and she makes excuses for him. She blames herself for her father’s wrongdoing. We don’t know too much about how Silvie’s mother actually feels about her husband, but she is relegated and degraded to almost a non-entity, with no interests or passions of her own, “Obviously, Mum was not interested in things, never had been, you only had to look at her to see that.” The father is a literal bully, but he also represents how people can be bullied into thinking or believing things that a rational, thinking person should see through.

The ghost wall of the title refers to a supernatural barrier that the local British tribes are said to have used to ward off the invading Roman forces. These walls were palisades topped with ancestral human skulls, a last-ditch attempt to ward off their invaders with magic. In Ghost Wall, Silvie’s father and the professor create their own ghost wall out of the skulls of animals as a reenactment. They manage to rope in some of the others to take part in a strange ritual ceremony with chanting and drumming that lasts late into the night that somehow manages to unite the dad and professor, despite their differences: “Dad and the Prof stepped in and did a strange male back-slapping move, like gorillas. I had never seen Dad touch another man before…”

The book builds, without rushing, to a conclusion that seems inevitable yet manages to shock all the same, and that wouldn’t look out of place in one of the classic folk horror films. By never relying on the supernatural for its atmosphere and tension, the events in Ghost Wall, while strange, never once feel beyond the realm of possibility. They’re frighteningly believable. Its denouement also shows us that groups can be capable of acts that the individuals would never have thought themselves capable of alone. Mob mentality can make almost anyone take leave of their senses.

Ghost Wall merges ancient rituals of pre-history Britain with an abusive and backwards-looking present to deliver a short, sharp shock of a novel that, once you’ve given it a day to digest, will have you itching for a second reading.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is published by Granta Books. Buy the book.

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