Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

A review of the literary novella Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a story about history, the past and what we do with it. Moss writes with vivid detail, evoking the heat and stillness of summer in a way that feels very genuine, describing the moors and bog land with detail and beauty. It’s an ugly story, there is a lot to unpack within its pages and with Moss’ writing style is incredibly compellingly.

This is a very short book; it’s basically a novella but it’s rich in tension, impact and theme. It centres around Silvie and her parents, who are taking part in an Iron Age “living history” experiment. They, along with three university students and their professor, are camping out in the wild to really experience what it would have been like to live in an Iron Age settlement. However, it is soon clear that tensions are brewing underneath the surface, rising to a dark crescendo.

The dialogue is formatted to be a seamless part of the narrative, evoking the feel of a piece of oral history passed down and retold which evokes the themes of history and family. It’s a very contained story, with tensions developing between the characters. The divide between Silvie and the university students works on many levels (geographically, educationally and financially). The greatest source of tension, however, comes from Silvie’s father, an abusive controlling man obsessed with ancient history.

Dad didn’t like the Irish, tended to see Catholicism in much the same light as the earlier forms of Roman imperialism. Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think. 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.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I suppose this could be seen as a Brexit novel but it’s also very much about families and tribes, the desire for belonging and the cost of idealising the past. Silvie’s father uses history as a way to distract from his unsatisfying present where he’s a bus driver instead of a historian or academic. Silvie uses her father’s past positive behaviour as a way of bearing his emotional and physical abuse in the now. The professor balances his professional historical interest with his reluctance to fully commit to the enactment. What might happen in this odd in-between space they have created where the line between past and present is so blurred?

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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