‘People don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love.‘
When it comes to reading I have no plan, just a decent memory. I remember books I’d like to read and when I come across them – charity shop, bookshop, library – I pick them up. But even this haphazard methodology throws up some surprises; occasionally books have a curious way of following each other in a way that feels like it was planned. Having recently read Eimear McBride’s extraordinary stream of consciousness novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a book which features a damaged, vulnerable but determined protagonist, I went quickly on to Sarah Moss’s exceptional, tightly written Ghost Wall, whose main character Silvie shares many of these characteristics.
Ghost Wall is a very different book, and no less compelling even if it initially requires less effort to access than McBride’s. The story is simply plotted: teenager Silvie and her parents spend one hot summer week on an ‘experiential archaeology’ trip with the academic Professor Slade and three students, foraging, hunting and living as an Iron Age community. Silvie’s bus driver father Bill has an obsession with the period, and this is one of the reasons why the family have been invited along. But it is soon apparent that Bill’s relationships with his wife and daughter – and his attitudes to this archaeological ‘experiment’ – are much more complex than they first seem.
Ghost Wall is especially remarkable for the air of menace that it conjures, humming with it like the air between electricity pylons. As much of this is down to what Moss leaves out as to what she tells us. In one breathtakingly brief scene she describes an act of violence; but whilst Moss is clear on what is happening she resists the temptation to play voyeur. Instead of the violence itself the writer describes the victim’s way of coping with it, focusing on the landscape around them: ‘the afternoon sun, the berries ripening hour by hour, the impalpable pulse of sap.‘ To the reader (this one, anyhow), it was this averted gaze that made what was happening all the more shocking, that and the fact that this episode is clearly part of a much older story: ‘It went on longer than usual, as if the open air invigorated him.‘
Moss’s descriptions of the natural world are remarkable, and this is clearly a landscape she knows well, her firm grasp of setting adding to an already oppressive atmosphere. Ghost Wall also taught me a lot about life in pre-Roman conquest Britain – not least what a ‘ghost wall’ actually is. The next time I see Iron Age artefacts in a museum, I’ll be viewing them with a new respect – and not a little uneasiness.