I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall. The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.
It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history. They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’. Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life. Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’. The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.
I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph. The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘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.’ As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.
Ghost Wall is highly sensual. As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts. Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner. In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now. The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’ This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing… Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’
Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety. When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but 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?’ As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing. She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated. Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.
Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one. I have never read anything quite like it before. The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.