Seventeen-year-old Silvie and her parents have joined up with a group of experiential archaeology students to spend part of their summer in rural England, attempting to live as the people of the iron age did. They wear simple tunics, forage and hunt for food, and cook over a fire, using, as best they can, the same kinds of tools used in ancient times.
As the story unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that all is not well for Silvie and her family. First, it’s revealed that her father is not, as I had assumed, a scholar looking to better understand the past, but a hobbyist with an enthusiasm for the past. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s just one example of how author Sarah Moss sets up a scenario and slowly unravels our (and the characters’) expectations. The unease that Silvie and her mother feel about the whole thing starts to looks more like unease about Silvie’s father. And then that unease looks like fear … and so on.
This novella, only 130 pages, shows how well a short book can pack a serious wallop. The story itself contains plenty of drama on its own, but there’s far more under its surface. The depiction of Silvie and her mother shows how years of abuse can wear down a person. And how the abuse becomes normal.
But the book gets into more than that. Silvie’s father romanticizes the past, which on its own need not be a bad thing. However, it becomes evident that he’s not just interested in the ingenuity of iron age people in how they made and used tools or their ability to subsist with so little. He also appreciates the brutality and violence of the time, although the question is raised more than once that his perceptions of what the past was like may not be entirely accurate, and certainly the victims of violence suffered, even if the violence was perceived as normal.
The more unsettling aspect of the book is how easily people can be brought along into points of view they would, on reflection, consider odious. There’s a scene where the characters enact their idea of an iron age ceremony, and almost everyone gets swept up in the chant, even if, when it started, it seemed like a bit of a lark. The characters’ actions in that particular scene were innocent enough on their face, but the question becomes, what else could they be coaxed into doing, the heat of the moment, while caught up in the energy of the group? What would anyone be willing to do when caught up in such a moment?