Ghost Wall

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?

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12 Responses to Ghost Wall

  1. Jeanne says:

    Sounds timely. I just got home from our weekly demonstration on the town square, and it continues to astound me how many people drive by yelling “build the wall!” and “Trump 2020!”

    • Teresa says:

      When I see videos of people yelling awful things at Trump rallies, I sometimes wonder how much they really believe what they’re saying and how much they’re just caught up in the group energy. But then I wonder how much it matters, because if people will yell things they don’t believe, what else might they do when caught up in the moment?

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    At first, or at moments while reading it I found it heavy-handed in its message, but then she kept adding another layer or twist that made me rethink what I thought the book was “about.” The father was a particularly complex figure and not (just) the villain he seemed at times. I loved it and it’s one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

    • Teresa says:

      I couldn’t really see the father as anything but a villain, but I could also see and appreciate how Silvie understood him differently. Those good memories still meant something to her, despite the abuse.

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I really like your comment on that final reenactment. As you say, at first to most of them it seems like kind of a fun game, but that’s exactly what makes it also seem so foreboding.

    • Teresa says:

      I kept wondering — and still wonder — how far it might have gone. And the way Silvie just gave in, worn down after years of abuse, is unsettling too.

  4. Oooh, this sounds really REALLY good. I love a book with these themes, and you know that I love when an author upsets the expectations you’ve developed. Adding it to the list!

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t want to oversell the upsetting of expectations–it’s more a slow unfolding of the real story, but it works really well. And she handles the ideas behind the story beautifully.

  5. Amy says:

    I have this on deck and am anxious to read it. I really liked her memoir of living in Iceland for a time.

    • Teresa says:

      That memoir is the only other book of hers that my library has, so I’m glad to hear you liked it. I hadn’t even heard of it.

  6. It sounds good, but also very creepy in a subtle way? It took me a while to notice that the pattern of leaves and flowers on the cover image makes the shape of a skull.

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