Book review: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss PIC: Pako Mera/REX/Shutterstock
Sarah Moss PIC: Pako Mera/REX/Shutterstock
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There is a danger, in the current political climate, of reading anything and everything in the context of Brexit, but while Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall would still be just as gripping and just as powerful a work of fiction had the vote gone the other way on 23 June, 2016, the circumstances in which we now find ourselves certainly give it added resonance. (It’s also interesting to note that in the acknowledgements the author says she started work on the book while she was on a writing residency as part of the tenth Hexham Literary Festival - an event which took place in July 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.)

The character who most obviously links Ghost Wall to Brexit is not the first-person narrator Silvie Hampton, a shy, working-class teenager growing up in 1990s Burnley, but her abusive father Bill. Although he drives buses to put food on the table, he is fascinated by archaeology and in particular by the Iron Age inhabitants of the British Isles – so fascinated, in fact, that he has forced Silvie and her mum, Alison, to join him on an experimental archeology trip to Northumberland with an academic, Professor Jim Slade, and three of his students, Dan, Pete and Molly.

Living miles from the nearest village, with Silvie and her parents in a primitive hut and the Prof and his students in tents, they try, as far as possible, to live an authentic Iron Age life, from hunting and foraging for food and wearing coarse cloth tunics to washing in streams and working with flint tools. For the three students it’s all a bit of a giggle, but for the Prof – and especially for Bill – the role-playing is something to be taken seriously. Molly and Alison, meanwhile, live in constant fear of violence from Bill, and as the story progresses Moss slowly ratchets up the tension, much as the Iron Age people they are studying used to slowly twist a length of rope around the necks of the human sacrifices they made, up on the nearby moors.

For Bill, studying the Iron Age inhabitants of Britain is all about constructing and reaffirming his own identity. At one point, Silvie observes that her father “wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim or something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Earlier she is embarrassed when she explains to the three students that she is called Silvie because her father “wanted me to have a proper native British name”, and catches them exchanging knowing glances.

Much like the Leave campaign, or any kind of political movement that draws a measure of power from encouraging “us and them” divisions, Bill’s quest for an authentic ethnic identity does not end happily. The book’s frequently foreshadowed denouement could have been its undoing, but Moss handles it with a subtle and highly effective mixture of precision and ambiguity.

Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss, Granta, £12.99