Book Review: 'Ghost Wall'

Jan 21, 2019

Sometimes a book grabs you and won’t let go. That’s the case with Ghost Wall, a tense, provocative, explosion of a novel by British author Sarah Moss.

Ghost Wall tells the story of 17-year-old Silvie, a girl living in the north of England who heads into the British countryside with her working-class family. The trip is hardly a relaxing vacation, though, as Silvie and her parents join an anthropology professor and a group of students looking to reenact life in ancient Britain – dressing in tunics, foraging for food and, eventually, observing Iron Age rituals. Silvie’s father is an amateur historian obsessed with ancient customs and values, including the idea that women should know their place. He is cruel and abusive, and it quickly becomes clear that the Iron Age reenactment exercise could unearth even more frightening behavior.

At only 130 pages, Ghost Wall unfolds with nightmarish tension. Moss’s writing evokes lush forests and peaty bogs, as the narrator slowly comprehends the sinister pull of her ancestors:

“That was the whole point of the re-enactment,” Silvie says early in the novel, “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.”

Both mythic and intensely relevant, Ghost Wall deals with issues of sexuality, class, patriarchy and xenophobia. Think Shirley Jackson meets Margaret Atwood, with a nod to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. You can read it one sitting but you’ll think about it long afterward.