BOOK REVIEW: Sarah Moss’s ‘Ghost Wall’ exposes the dangers of ancestral purity
The book is a timely reminder of the vanity of the myth and a critique of the rise of Donald-Trump led demagoguery
Scientists remain puzzled by the lives and deaths of the bog bodies found in Celtic Europe. We do know, however, that they came to a grisly end. None more so than the young, iron age woman in the terse, uncanny prologue to British writer and academic Sarah Moss’s slim novel Ghost Wall.
Held, bound and then murdered before an audience of her neighbours and family — “people who held her hand as she learnt to walk” — she remembers how she was once one of them as “her eyes widen to the last sky” and she hovers in the moment between life and death.
It’s a brutal opening to the story narrated by teenager Sylvie, forced to spend yet another summer holiday on an “experiential archaeology” expedition in rural Northumberland, where she, her parents, and a group of students and their affable professor are trying to live like Britons of the Iron Age — wearing scratchy tunics, sleeping on straw stuffed sacks that make them itch, foraging for burdock roots and eating gruel.
Moss frequently reminds us of the violence of life lived in nature. It’s a violence that Sylvie’s father Bill appears to embrace. Disgusted by modernity, he is a bus driver by day and an amateur historian by night. He’s invited to help lead the project because he has taught himself the survival skills the students are seeking to acquire. It soon becomes clear that Bill is also a cruel, oppressive bully who believes women should know their place; he all but ignores Sylvie’s mother, unless to bark out orders at her.
He keeps Sylvie under tight control, frequently resorting to physical and psychological violence, so that she’s torn between trying to please him (to escape punishment) and fantasising about running 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?”
Sylvie is mortified when it comes to light that she is named after the Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, Sulevia, and a conversation ensues between her and the chirpy students about what lies beneath the desire to establish an original English identity.
“To do it properly,” Sylvie says of their project, “we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, 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.”
Bill’s brutality and xenophobia are steadily exposed and juxtaposed against the enthusiasm of the students and their professor. To Bill’s extreme annoyance, the students make no bones about longing for the comforts of modern life, which only causes his censure to mount, as does the tension in the group.
He yearns for the return to an atavistic past, for the purity of ancient Britain. As one camper observes, “He likes the idea that there’s some original Britishness somewhere, that if he goes back far enough he’ll find someone who wasn’t a foreigner.”
And as his anger grows, so too does his mistreatment of Sylvie. “I do not know what my father thought I might want to do in these days but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I could not do it,” she says.
This is one of many hints scattered throughout the narrative that question the implications of their enterprise as Moss delves deeply into the questions of human behaviour and our responsibilities toward one another. The central tension of Ghost Wall lies in this nostalgia for a fabled past and the impossibility of manifesting it.
Given Trump, Brexit and the global rise of populism, Moss’s brilliant folk horror novel — and its monstrously plausible conclusion — is a timely reminder of the myth of ancestral purity, and a critique of the sinister rise of demagoguery and viciousness across the world.