A short novel that delivers a big punch, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss takes an unusual premise – a students’ archaeological trip – to expose the seam of violence underpinning our modern lives, and to draw chilling parallels between ancient worlds and our own. The disturbing prologue in which an iron age girl is sacrificed in front of her family and friends sets the tone for this unsettling novel which raises themes of gender equality, nationalism, misogyny and domestic violence.
Narrator Silvie is the 17-year-old daughter of a bus driver/amateur iron age historian. They have been invited to join a university ‘living archaeology’ expedition which aims to teach undergraduates about the lives of iron age people by spending a week in a makeshift settlement in rural Northumberland, where Bill’s survivalist skills and knowledge of how the ancient Britons lived is supposed to provide a practical basis for this immersion project. Together with a keen professor and a few slacker students, Silvie is expected to forage for food, wear moccasins and a scratchy tunic, wash in the stream and skin rabbits. This is no ordinary camping holiday.
Silvie is sensitive to the rugged beauty of the landscape, feeling a thrill of waking to dawn birdsong and showing the students the way to find the best wild bilberries. She is alive to the history of the place and particularly to the story of a murdered girl lying buried beneath the boggy landscape.
‘She had slept and woken, had sleepless nights, felt sun and wind and rain, learnt the impossible dance of fingers plaiting her own hair behind her head.’
The language has a magical, unearthly quality through which the everyday is connected with the past: here are bones, skulls, wattle and daub, blood and pain – and yet the students with their glittery nail varnish sneak off for a Cornetto and the traffic on the Great North Road is audible. As the characters in the camp come to grips with the challenges they have set themselves, social niceties and conventions of the modern world fade away and real tensions emerge.
While the Prof favours discussion of Tacitus, herbal remedies and ancient inter-tribal squabbles, the hard-line Bill uses the camp to force strict adherence to discomfort and a terrible diet, to certain gender roles and behaviours and as a way of justifying domestic violence. Sylvie’s gentle reverence for the natural world and knowledge of animals and plants is set against her father’s coarser use of nature for his own dark reasons, and the creation of a ‘ghost wall’ – an Iron Age defence made of animal or human skulls – becomes a symbol of that thin line between our civilised world and its terrifying pagan past.
‘They made drumming, as the eastern sky darkened and 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.’
As the novel reaches its shocking climax it is clear that Silvie has more in common with the bog girl than even she imagined. Sarah Moss is an extremely fine writer who like an archaeologist excavates the layers of meaning beneath human behaviour. I’m thrilled to have discovered this book and I can’t wait to read more from her.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is published by Granta Books, 160 pages.