Silvie’s summer vacation is a nightmare. She, her abusive father, and her browbeaten mother have joined a college professor and his three-person Experimental Archaeology class in the northern woods of England, where they are trying to live like the ancients. For the class, it’s a learning experience and something of a lark, at least at first. For Silvie’s father, it’s deadly serious; he’d love to live like that all the time, as he imagines Iron Age Britain to be the world of his racist and sexist dreams.
Things get worse when Silvie’s father and some of the others become obsessed with the grislier aspects of the olden days: the titular ghost wall — a fence topped with skulls that was meant to magically repel invaders — and the human sacrifices preserved in the peat bogs. Meanwhile, Silvie is both drawn to and terrified by Molly, one of the students, who refuses to allow Silvie to keep seeing her fearful existence as normal.
Silvie’s father is a terrifying antagonist because he’s so horribly real. He’s physically abusive, but his constant nasty little digs grind Silvie (and the reader) down too. He’s the guy who tells his wife she needs to exercise because she’s fat, then tells her how bad she looks in her workout wear. He’s the guy who thinks periods are a sign of some kind of moral or lifestyle flaw. He’s the guy who thinks everyone with dark skin needs to go “back where they came from,” even if they’ve lived in a place all their lives. And he’s definitely the guy who fantasizes about the past (or sometimes the future) just because he thinks it would be a playground for consequence-free violence. As Molly puts it, “Your dad and Jim, have you noticed, they’re not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting”.
In its short length (130 pages), Ghost Wall (2018) explores bigotry, abuse and its effects, mob mentality, and the dangers of over-idealizing the mythic past. The ugly side of human nature is juxtaposed with beautifully written, vivid descriptions of Silvie’s surroundings. The ending is kind of abrupt. Once I realized it was the ending, it worked. The way the book is laid out, though, I read the last page, continued to the next thinking it was going to be some more follow-up or an epilogue, but it’s just the acknowledgements.
While there is no actual magic in Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss uses the tropes of folk horror to tell Silvie’s story. It’s a brief but memorable book with a great deal of emotional, and political, resonance. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s well worth reading if anything in this review intrigues you.
This is a case where this title could have hooked me, but your review just convinces me I have to read it.
I think you would like it, Marion.
Well, sign ME up! This book sounds fantastic!