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BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

| 30 October 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Granta
October 2018
Hardcover, $27.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Novella / Horror

8/10

In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.

For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.

The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?

A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the “primitive minds” of our ancestors.
 


They’d have brought the kill home and it would have been like getting back from the supermarket, unpacking, take the skin to scrape and the bones for tools, wind the sinews for sewing leather and blow up the bladder for the children to play ball. Some bloody supermarket he’s got there, murmured Dan, don’t fancy the scene in his kitchen.

Silvie and her parents are joining some anthropology students and their professor for a couple of weeks of experimental archaeology; living as the folks of long ago were believed to.

The bunks were exactly as uncomfortable as you’d expect. I had refused to sleep wearing the scratchy tunic that my father insisted in the absence of any evidence whatsoever to be the Ancient British nightdress as well as daywear, but even through brushed cotton pyjamas the straw-stuffed sack was prickly, smelt like a farmyard and rustled as if there were small mammals frisking in it every time I moved.

Silvie’s father is well-versed in ancient civilisation, with a specifically obsessive focus on human sacrifices made to the peat bogs, these days known as bog bodies/people.

Dad had told me on one of our winter walks that if they gagged and blindfolded the bog people, it wasn’t so’s the victims couldn’t see what was coming, they knew fine well what was coming and it didn’t matter what kind of noise they made, there was no one coming to change that. No, the blindfolding and gagging were to protect the people whose job was the killing from the last looks and the curses. Makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it, he’d said, if folk believe in any of that stuff, ill-wishing and cursing and what have you. You wouldn’t want to hear owt they might say at the end, wouldn’t want it in your ears, so to speak.

That obsession is something he seems to have passed on to his daughter, who wonders about the experience from a different angle.

The bog seals around you, and it will of course go further than skin, or at least will fill the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from the inside out.

There are few bog children and so far as I know no bog babies, so the people who come to us now out of the bogs must have been cared for, fed, must have been part of their families and villages until one day they found that they were no longer like everyone else, that sometime in the night something had changed. No one knows how far before death that day might have been, whether one morning someone came to wake you carrying a rope, the blades already sharpened and waiting in the heather, or whether you had weeks or months to say your farewells, to get used to your status as a ghost.

Silvie’s father is abusive towards her and her mother. While that mostly manifests in a menacing presence when other people are around to bear witness, there’s a particularly vicious feeling emanating off him amongst this faux-ancient society, while imagining more clearly than ever what life might have been like in those days.

I felt Dad’s gaze on me and knew with a shiver what he was thinking. My daughter. Break her and stake her to the bog, stop her before she gets away. They weren’t dead, the bog people, not to those who’d killed them. They had to be pinned to their graves with sharp sticks driven through elbow and knee, trapped behind woven wooden palings, to stop them coming back, creeping home dead and not dead in the dark.

 

Bog bodies have always been a subject of immense fascination for this reader, even to the point of receiving full marks for a creative non-fiction story about them from a particularly picky teacher in high school, so anything with bog body elements is a instant must read.

The bog body elements are filtered throughout the story, mainly through Silvie recounting things her father has taught her about them, or imagining for herself how that would have felt, knowing you were to be given to the peat. 

But this story isn’t just about people of the peat. It’s also a exploration of experimental archaeology and ancient society, and it takes a good hard look at the treatment of women, now and in the Iron Age, and at the way some people might turn a blind eye to or even enable domestic abuse, and how powerless and outnumbered those on the periphery might feel.

It’s a coming of age story with info about the act of sacrificing things to bogs, survival, and archaeology. It’s chilling and poignant, horrible and hopeful, and such an engaging read.

The only qualm this reader has with this book is the lack of quotation marks to define dialogue.

This is no doubt a stylistic choice, but I find it always makes the reading of a book, the getting lost in it, a much more conscious effort. One of the main reasons that books have this style as standard is that we can get caught up in the story, and not spend our time trying to work out (thanks to this ambiguity of formatting) who is speaking, when. When this is made clear for us, we can focus on the story and the beautiful telling of it. The formatting becomes invisible and we find ourselves immersed. 

This is such a big pet peeve for this reader that several novels with this formatting have gone unread beyond the first chapter, but I did push through for the experimental archaeology and bog bodies. I’m glad I did, and I will definitely be seeking out more works by Sarah Moss… I just hope they have quotation marks.

Category: Book Reviews

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