“Ghost Wall,” Moss’s sixth novel, is a compact, riveting book. Female sacrifice is never far from the center of her concerns; she wants us to question our complicity in violence, particularly against women. Her protagonist is Sulevia “Silvie” Hampton, a 17-year-old working-class girl fueled by a compelling mix of restlessness and moxie... “Ghost Wall” is tautly framed by Silvie’s point of view. Her conversations and interior monologues are embedded in lean, no-nonsense paragraphs. Moss is not much interested in giving Silvie and her rebellious tendencies room to breathe. This is a novel about being constrained, even trapped. Silvie soon finds herself hemmed in by her father’s abuse, her mother’s numb codependence and the students’ thoughtless privilege. Time and again, she fights through these obstacles to speak her mind or claim dominion over her body. But her battles come at a cost.
Sarah Moss’s concise, claustrophobic sixth novel concerns the perils of family life. The narrator Silvie is a frustrated 17-year-old on holiday in the Northumbrian countryside with her father Bill, a bus driver with an insatiable interest in prehistoric Britain, and her mother Alison, who works as a cashier in a supermarket. They have joined an ‘experiential archeology’ field trip — ‘to have a flavour of Iron Age life’ — run by Professor Slade for a group of his university students...Moss’s canvas is characteristically small-scale.
While imbued with Moss’s characteristic elegance, insight and deep sense of place, it packs a bigger punch than her other novels: at just 149 pages, it’s a short, sharp shock of a book that closes around you like a vice as you read it. Her earlier work considered the small dramas of daily lives in expansive, almost languorous detail. This story is tauter and tenser: plot driven, time limited and entirely out of the ordinary. From the terse, dismaying little prologue, in which an iron age girl is marched out and murdered before an audience of neighbours and family, to the hair-raising, heart-stopping denouement, it hurtles along and carries you with it, before dumping you, breathless, at the end.
Moss’s sixth novel, Ghost Wall, while continuing this element of time-sifting, has more in common with her debut Cold Earth. Compact in form, both combine the components of a thriller with a nuanced understanding of history, its fluctuating interpretations and its often traumatic effect on the present. . . Moss’s sensual writing recalls the late Helen Dunmore: Silvie, “sunburnt and blue fingered” from picking wild bilberries, is hungry for life and experience, food and friendship. She finds feminist Molly, who talks back to Bill and appears confident and carefree, particularly attractive. Molly’s outspokenness and concern, her flouting of the rules of the camp, emboldens Silvie: Moss reveals how, as Silvie’s power grows throughout the book, so Bill’s intentions become more extreme, his addiction to pre-history blurring the lines of past and present to maximum sinister effect, in a bold, spare study of internecine conflict.
Over a staggeringly short distance – the novel runs to just over a generously typeset 150 pages – Moss creates and manipulates an atmosphere of extreme tension. Everywhere, something is being withheld... An uncanny prologue has indicated to the reader what might follow, but as the story edges towards its climax, Moss appears to collapse layers of history, to render skin and knife and rope identical across millennia.
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 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.
The book’s title is a type of defensive wall – mentioned by one of the characters – that a tribe or clan would have decorated with skulls or bones to scare away invaders. Ghost Wall also operates within a supernatural framework, not least because the spectre of violence, submission and male dominance hovers throughout.... The novel gradually narrows its focus, and the ending becomes a bottleneck from which character and reader feel they can’t escape. It is either an extraordinary mirroring of everything that has gone before, or asks the reader to take a huge leap, even beyond fiction. This doesn’t mean that the two are mutually exclusive, or that it doesn’t work, and in many ways, it feels like the only way to play it out. Moss’s brevity is admirable, her language pristine. This story lingers, leaving its own ghosts, but with important lessons for the future of idealising the past.
There are flesh-creeping moments... but Moss resists making him a mere ogre of sadistic patriarchy. Behind his horribleness there’s sometimes pathos. Shamed feelings of self-educated inferiority emerge as he envies those “who’d passed the 11-plus and made summat of themselves” or tries to extricate himself from factual blunders (“Aye… I knew that, right enough, course I did”). It’s writing that, along with vivid responses to the natural world and acute alertness to class, regional and sexual tensions, recalls the early fiction of DH Lawrence. It brings enriching complexity to this tale of escalating menace.
I was a huge fan of Sarah Moss' debut Cold Earth and this, her sixth, I think is the most similar. What I admire about both books is Moss' ability to find an emotional connection with characters in the far distant past. Here Moss' central character Silvie is a teenager in the mid-1990s whose domineering father takes the family to spend the summer at a remote camp in Northumberland designed to re-create life in Iron Age Britain, as part of an exercise in experimental archaeology. As Silvie's story unfolds we see her bond to a girl who lived thousands of years before and died as a human sacrifice. Eerie and gripping....