‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss

My rating: 4 stars

Fiction books that focus on relevant social issues can sometimes feel merely like a lecture. That is, fortunately, not the case with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is an atmospheric and convincing character study that denounces extremism, xenophobia, violence against women and misogyny. These themes are perfectly incorporated into the plot and clearly combined with the personalities of the characters.

It was summer. Silvie, who is the narrator of the story, and her parents joined an encampment in rural Northumberland organised by the archaeology professor Jim Slade, whose aim was to recreate life during the Iron Age. Her father, a bus driver, was obsessed with discovering more about the way of life in Ancient Britain. He also seemed to give excessive importance to English purity. In the past, he hadn’t let Silvie eat traditional food from other countries. Her mother subjugated herself to all of his needs and whims.

As Silvie intersperses the recalling of the events at the camping site with other memories from her life, her personality becomes fully understandable. She didn’t know what she wanted to do in the future, but she aspired to some sort of freedom, in order to escape from her domineering and aggressive father. That is probably the reason why she listened with interest as the professor’s students spoke about travelling around Europe and seeing the recently fallen Berlin Wall.

The prose is atmospheric throughout. But the first pages, which serve as a kind of prologue, are particularly impressive and evocative. They describe the sacrifice of a woman during the Iron Age.

“A body in fear. They lead the fearful body over the turf and along the track, her bare feet numb to most of the pain of rock and sharp rushes. Chanting rises, the drums sound slow, unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart.”

This is a short novella. Nevertheless, it seems much longer than its 150 pages, maybe because the middle section of the story is somewhat repetitive. This was probably a conscious choice from the author to achieve a necessary suffocating atmosphere, but it still grated me at times.

The chilling and powerful ending makes up for this small criticism and serves as testament to Sarah Moss’s talent.

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