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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss is one of the books on the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. Others on the list include Circe, The Silence of the Girls, Normal People and Milkman. The short list will be out on 29 April.

This is a short novel about a group of people gathered in northern England to take part in an archaeological reconstruction – living like people from the Iron Age. Silvie is there with her Mum and Dad, mainly because her Dad is obsessed by life in these ancient times. He is a bus driver by profession, but reads lots of research about life in primative times. A professor and some of his students are also taking part. Silvie is still at school, and is sixteen or seventeen. All the others are slightly older. We follow the daily chores; cooking, gathering food of plants and berries, trapping rabbits. Silvie befriends Molly, who is happy to take part in the reconstruction, but also visits the Spar supermarket to buy ice creams, cakes and crisps. Silvie’s Dad is a difficult domineering character who is too quick to become angry with his wife and daughter.

On the surface all is normal, everyday life with all its tensions. Underneath there is a current of fear which haunts Silvie’s family, and cuts them off from the others. You can feel that tension, simmering gently throughout the book and within the characters. We are not rushing towards it, but it is gently teased out of the action. Silvie’s Dad is a violent man, but she continues to make excuses for him. His obsessive need to be faithful to the past will push him to go too far.

The first chapter is a sort of prologue, taking us back to Iron Age times when one of the girls from a village is to be sacrificed. In two and a half pages we have a horrible picture of a girl being dragged out into the marsh, a rope around her neck, a stick ready to twist the chord. These are things that I have read about in books such as ‘The Bog People’ by P V Glob. Ancient prehistoric rituals where someone is killed and left in the marshes and where centuries later their almost perfectly preserved bodies are found and their histories unpicked and studied.

The Ghost Wall is beautifully done, the drama hidden among the foliage of the forest and in the darkness of the Iron Age roundhouse. I love its subtlety and its brilliant tension.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson


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