In a brief prologue to this short novel, Sarah Moss describes the sacrifice of an Iron Age girl. Moments before her torture begins,
The men turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learnt to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. . . . She has been one of them, ordinary.
This scene makes the opening line of the novel’s main first-person narrative, set just after the fall of the Berlin wall, ring ominously: “Darkness was a long time coming.” One thing Ghost Wall suggests is that darkness is always there, part of the fabric of ordinary human life. It’s not something we have left in a more primitive past.
Teenaged Silvie and her family are participating in an Iron Age re-enactment done by an “experimental archaeology” university class, with a professor and three students. Silvie’s father, a bus driver, is fascinated (and/or obsessed) with this past, and has shared that fascination with Silvie. She knows far more about the natural world, foraging, and ancient history than the privileged university students, and she adeptly picks up crafts they practice like basket-weaving. But Silvie’s father is also, as becomes clear, a controlling abuser who is in part using his understanding of a “more authentic” past to justify keeping his wife and daughter in subservient roles. Her time with the students, especially Molly, pushes Silvie to begin looking at her family life in a new way.
In some ways this slim novel reads as a heavy-handed feminist fable: the men always want to talk about fighting and are increasingly drawn to the violence of the past, while the women, especially Silvie’s mother, are expected to produce food. As the summer holiday spirals towards violence–the opening scene of sacrifice throws its foreshadow over the increasingly tense narrative–women become the rescuers. It’s a Brexit fable too, as Moss discusses in a really interesting interview. There’s a reason for the offhand mention that one of the students visited Berlin and saw part of the wall come down, and for Silvie’s memory of walking Hadrian’s Wall with her dad, and of course for the wall of the title, constructed by the men while the women weave baskets, and topped with animal skulls in lieu of the skulls of their ancestors. Silvie’s dad likes the Iron Age because he sees it as a time before “brown faces” contaminated Britain, and he wants to claim a connection to that “true” Britishness that will allow him to feel superior.
But I think this summary over-simplifies the novel. There were moments where I felt “this is just too blatant,” but Moss treats all her characters with some sympathy–even if not letting them off the hook–and they are morally complex. Silvie, for instance, values what her Dad taught her, and one thing he’s taught her is to look down on her Mum. They aren’t united by their suffering. All the men aren’t the same, though none come out of the events as well as Molly. And Silvie, like the men, can be carried away by the re-enactment. Here is the night they put up the ghost wall:
They made drumming, as the eastern sky darkened and the stars prickled above the band of pale cloud. They made chanting, and I found myself joining in, heard my voice rise clear, hold its notes, above their low incantation. We sat on the ground before our raised bone-faces, sang to them as they gleamed moonlit into the darkness. We sang of death, and it felt true. Away to the south, orange light spilled across the sky from the town, and below us a single pair of headlights nosed into the lane.
As so often in the novel, the present intrudes on the attempt to re-create an idyllic past, fracturing the nostalgic seduction of the re-enactment.
We come to know the little patch of ground on which this band of re-enactors camps as intimately as Silvie does, and it’s often beautifully and lovingly described. But it isn’t “pure” or apart from the present, and to think it could or should be is a dangerous fantasy.