Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss’s sixth novel, is further proof that she’s one of our very best contemporary novelists. How she hasn’t been nominated for the Man Booker Prize continues to mystify me — and this year is no exception. At a mere 160 pages, Ghost Wall may look unassuming, but it’s testament to Moss’s notable talents that within these that she’s able to address the huge topics of misogynistic brutality and violence, gender inequality and class warfare, not to mention the lessons of history. But never at the expense of what’s a gripping narrative.
Narrated by 17-year-old Silvie, the action in the novel takes place over the course of a few days at the height of summer. In the wilds of Northumberland, a small group is engaged in an exercise in experimental archaeology. Silvie and her mother and father — a bus driver who’s a keen amateur historian, obsessed with ancient Britain — have joined forces with a Professor Slade and three of his university students, Molly, Pete and Dan. They’ve come together to enact Iron Age life. They dress in shapeless, “scratchy” tunics, live in a purpose built camp, and forage for food on the surrounding land — the descriptions of which are beautifully evocative, lush and wild.
Professor Slade — who’s wearing tennis socks to prevent his Iron Age-style moccasins from giving him blisters — is willing to bend the rules a little. He’s all about them experiencing the “flavour” of prehistoric life, but Silvie’s exacting father is insisting on as much authenticity as possible, despite the brutal toll this takes on his wife and daughter.
“To do it properly”, Silvie thinks, “we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.”
There are echoes here of Moss’s first novel, the nightmarish post-apocalyptic thriller Cold Earth, which was set on an archaeological excavation in Greenland. As a mysterious but deadly virus wrecked havoc in the wider world, the members of the dig became as isolated as the medieval Greenlanders they’re investigating.
Moss utilises a similarly isolated setting here in Ghost Wall, one in which the tendrils of the past wrap themselves around characters in the present with potential deadly consequences. Here, Silvie is haunted by the story of a bog girl, a young woman who met a violent death. This new novel showcases the same assured ratcheting up of tension that made Cold Earth so chilling a read.
So too, like Moss’s previous book — the magnificent The Tidal Zone, a different kind of state of the nation novel — Ghost Wall is full of uncomfortable truths about the modern world. Domestic violence finds its roots in ancient ritual sacrifice, and contemporary misogyny and xenophobia is shown to be just as grimly powerful as Iron Age superstition. It’s an intoxicating concoction; inventive, intelligent, and like no other author’s work.