Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

We have made assumptions about the lives that our distant ancestors lived based on what we've found of their settlements, their tools and utensils, and any writing they might have left behind. Whether we have made correct assumptions may never be known. This does not stop us from reenactments in museum dioramas or even in living history retreats or weekends. Slipping fully into the skin of people who went before us might help us appreciate the advances we've made to ease our lives, or it might bring us to a misguided idea of simpler times for which we yearn. In Sarah Moss' slight, powerful, and dark novella, Ghost Wall, we see the danger in embracing ideas and imagined morals from the past.

Seventeen year old Silvie's family has joined with an experiential anthropology class in Northumberland to live like Britons did in the Iron Age. Silvie's father Bill is a violent, controlling, abusive man and he is determined that their family will live as authentically as possible, even if the anthropology professor and the students cheat at every turn. He wants to erase all signs of modern life, subjugating his wife and daughter in the way that he envisions the Iron Age people did to their women. As the group steps into the lives of the people they are studying, the lines start to blur and the threatening, menacing air gets more and more oppressive.

This is a dark and suffocating work. The tension ratchets up and up as the quotidian gives way to the mystical, to dark history and domestic violence. The atmosphere is well drawn with the clear, detailed natural world counterbalancing Bill as he hides his abuse, lashing out in private, even as he convinces others to go along with him in his sacrificial delusion. It very much a political novel, showing the conservative, xenophobic, brutal, and brutish Bill to be wholly wrong in his desires for a purer time, people, and nation. Unfortunately he is very much a one dimensional character, as are most of the characters here. Only Silvie has any nuance to her character and much of her nuance is thanks to naivete. There are no quotation marks setting off dialogue and multiple characters can speak within the same paragraph, which adds to the confused multiplicity of voices, especially toward the end of the story. Reading this was suffocating and grim but also frustrating from a craft perspective. It was awarded many accolades so obviously my opinion is an outlier.

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