Ghost Wall: These are not the good old days

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGhost Wall by Sarah Moss science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGhost Wall by Sarah Moss

Silvie’s summer vacation is a nightmare. She, her abusive father, and her browbeaten mother have joined a college professor and his three-person Experimental Archaeology class in the northern woods of England, where they are trying to live like the ancients. For the class, it’s a learning experience and something of a lark, at least at first. For Silvie’s father, it’s deadly serious; he’d love to live like that all the time, as he imagines Iron Age Britain to be the world of his racist and sexist dreams.

Things get worse when Silvie’s father and some of the others become obsessed with the grislier aspects of the olden days: the titular ghost wall — a fence topped with skulls that was meant to magically repel invaders — and the human sacrifices preserved in the peat bogs. Meanwhile, Silvie is both drawn to and terrified by Molly, one of the students, who refuses to allow Silvie to keep seeing her fearful existence as normal.

Silvie’s father is a terrifying antagonist because he’s so horribly real. He’s physically abusive, but his constant nasty little digs grind Silvie (and the reader) down too. He’s the guy who tells his wife she needs to exercise because she’s fat, then tells her how bad she looks in her workout wear. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHe’s the guy who thinks periods are a sign of some kind of moral or lifestyle flaw. He’s the guy who thinks everyone with dark skin needs to go “back where they came from,” even if they’ve lived in a place all their lives. And he’s definitely the guy who fantasizes about the past (or sometimes the future) just because he thinks it would be a playground for consequence-free violence. As Molly puts it, “Your dad and Jim, have you noticed, they’re not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting”.

In its short length (130 pages), Ghost Wall (2018) explores bigotry, abuse and its effects, mob mentality, and the dangers of over-idealizing the mythic past. The ugly side of human nature is juxtaposed with beautifully written, vivid descriptions of Silvie’s surroundings. The ending is kind of abrupt. Once I realized it was the ending, it worked. The way the book is laid out, though, I read the last page, continued to the next thinking it was going to be some more follow-up or an epilogue, but it’s just the acknowledgements.

While there is no actual magic in Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss uses the tropes of folk horror to tell Silvie’s story. It’s a brief but memorable book with a great deal of emotional, and political, resonance. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s well worth reading if anything in this review intrigues you.

Published in 2018. ‘This book ratcheted the breath out of me so skilfully, that as soon as I’d finished, the only thing I wanted was to read it again.’ Jessie Burton. Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. This is a case where this title could have hooked me, but your review just convinces me I have to read it.

  2. Well, sign ME up! This book sounds fantastic!

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