A teenage girl, Silvie, and her mother, reluctantly accompany her father on a camping expedition in Northumberland. They are there to live life in accordance with people in the Iron Age as part of a sociological experiment run by a University professor and his students.
Sarah Moss’ latest novel, at a mere 149 pages, is the best book of 2019 so far. The time period is unclear, but their purpose means that it almost doesn’t matter. Silvie and the other characters eschew modern technologies, living off the land (foraging for berries and fruits, killing and eating wild animals), wearing tunics, and observing strange rituals.
For Silvie’s father, this is a dream come true. He’s a self-taught historian, one who seems rather taken with Iron Age principles of women staying at home and men doing the hunting. He’s an out-and-out racist too, openly speaking about a non-existent “pure” Englishness and bemoaning immigrants. These old-fashioned, wrongheaded beliefs rub up against not only Silvie and her mother, but the students and Professor, though the intensity of the experience starts to penetrate them all, leading to a truly horrific act of violence.
Moss’ point is that we cannot know for sure how these people really lived, and Silvie’s father, rather than wanting to seek some kind of historical purity, has instead found a kinship in the patriarchal views that he feels these people had. It’s a book about deeply ingrained racism and misogyny, but it’s also about how history has been constantly written and interpreted by men who want to glorify and celebrate abuses of power.
Ghost Wall is a masterpiece.
Most memorable quote
"That was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, 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.”