by Sarah Moss
Teenage Silvie is living in a remote Northumberland camp as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is an abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life. Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her, and as the hot summer builds to a terrifying climax, Silvie and the Bog girl are in ever more terrifying proximity.
I received an eARC of Ghost Wall from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Sarah Moss is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I own two of her books already, The Tidal Zone and Names for the Sea, but when I saw people talking about her novella I couldn’t resist requesting copy, and I thought reading something shorter would be a good way for me to whet my appetite for her work.
Ghost Wall takes place in the moody Northumberland countryside and follows 17 year old Silvie who, along with her mother and her abusive father, finds herself joining a professor and three of his students on an archaeological experiment to live how people lived in Iron Age Britain.
Her father is mentally and physically abusive, and is obsessed with the brutality of the Iron Age. He thinks of that period history as a period before immigration – when everything was only British – despite the fact that the country was divided into various pre-Roman clans and cultures during this time, so ‘the good old days’ of Britain without immigration is a place that simply never existed at all. Naturally, he doesn’t quite see it this way.
He’s particularly fascinated by the idea of human sacrifice, something he’s taught Silvie about, and Silvie herself finds herself relating more and more to these ‘bog girls’ who were sacrificed by the people who were supposed to love them. There’s a heartbreaking moment in which Silvie justifies her father’s love for her through these sacrifices, because people only sacrifice, and therefore hurt, the things that they love.
Moss’s writing is beautiful. I loved her descriptions of the landscape, and the way she wrote about bog people was stunningly eerie. Considering the extent of her father’s abuse, the scenes between him and Silvie could have been gratuitous but they were never written that way; there was a real sense of fear and foreboding whenever her father was on the page, or whenever we knew he was on his way, but he wasn’t handled as a caricature and I really appreciated that.
I also loved the way Silvia defended the north of England – particularly the accents. I’ve experienced it myself (when my Yorkshire accent was much stronger than it is now; sadly I’ve learned to sound a bit more southern just so people can clearly understand what I’m saying) and it’s hard not to get defensive when someone mocks the way you speak, because it’s something you can’t simply change overnight without sounding like you’re putting on a voice.
It wasn’t a novella I was completely satisfied with. I couldn’t always keep up with whether someone was saying or thinking something, or whether it was just the narrative, because it was written without speech marks and the edition I had from NetGalley was still rather jumbled up in terms of how it was spread out. I actually went through most of this novella thinking it was going to be a 3 star read, but I ended up bumping it to 4 stars just because I was really satisfied with the ending. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting and I’m glad it wasn’t that ending.
So if you’re in the mood for some literary fiction or a moody novella, I recommend giving this one a try! Moss writes beautifully and I’ll definitely be reading more of her work in future.