Review by Mary Kat
- Rating: 😻😻😻😻/5
- Recommend for: Those up for a well-written, taunt novella about history, family, and patriarchy
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a taunt little novella that starts off tense and grows ever more suffocating as the story goes on. It’s a very specific story — about a class’s re-enactment of Britons in the Iron Age — but it has broad lessons on gender, violence, and groupthink. (Note: I’m going to use some Pixabay images in this post to give you those old timey vibes.) The main premise is that an undergraduate class and their Professor are completing a radical re-enactment of Britons living in the Iron Age, and they have the help of a local family to guide them on the location, techniques, etc. The students seemed to be expecting a chill historical re-enactment — maybe play dress up, do some light camping, relax in the outdoors — but that’s not what’s in store. The Britons lived violence, and so this group and family will live it as well.
SPOILERS AHEAD! CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The character cast is small and often feels even smaller. The main character is Silvie, our the teenaged narrator whose whole life resolves around her fanatic historian father. Although a blue collar man by trade, her father goes apeshit for history in his spare time. He loves the violence, the patriarchy, and the rituals of the time. Loves it so much, in fact, that he’s lost touch with any warmth or compassion for his family. In place of a relationship with his family, he’s all Iron Age all the time.
The other characters are: Silvie’s brow-beaten Mother who seems so full of depression from her life of domestic violence that she’s basically a husk of a person now. No surprise when she fails to protect Silvie, since this woman has lost all will to protect herself anymore. The Professor, a historical nerd who starts off like a good guy but gets swept up in groupthink. A couple other male students who are pretty much filler. And Molly, a pretty student who is sassy and doesn’t give two shits about the Iron Age.
All The Best
This book is amazingly well-written. I found the writing to be stunning, consistently lyrical and poetic. That makes the events of the book, including the disturbing ones, even more vivid. Her writing is so convincing — Silvie and her mother as victims felt so real, almost too real. It’s not a pleasant read by any means. I was sad when Silvie defended her abusive father, but I was not surprised, which is a tribute to how well and powerfully Moss wrote her narrator’s voice.
Even though the book is small, I found myself somewhat dreading picking up the book again because it was so hard to read Silvie’s pain. In fact, I put the book down at one point and tried to quit. Took my bookmark out and everything. But days later I kept thinking about the book. I couldn’t stand not knowing what happened to Silvie, and I knew that I had to finish.
And I’m so glad I did. The ending was a perfect match to the beginning. Both chapters were so intense that I could barely breath. Again, it’s a testament to this book’s powerful writing that I was so invested in these characters despite the short length. I was nearly shaking in the book’s climax as Silvie is led to the bog. I have never visited England, Ireland, or that region in general, but now I’m more reluctant because I have a new pathological fear of bogs.
I’m grateful that Moss finished with a happy ending because 1) it was believable and felt right but 2) I needed it. It was empowering and a joy to read Molly rescuing Silvie — a nice reversal of the usual trope.
Ghost Wall is a powerful short read on violence, families, and patriarchy with a memorable backdrop of bogs and old Britain. Highly recommend, but make sure you’re in the right mood for a suffocating, rather heavy read.
- Euphoria by Lily King is a great fit for a reader interested in a well-written story that incorporates history and anthropology. This novel, which I loved and highly recommend, is a fictionalized account of Margaret Mead on her travels in New Guinea. Euphoria was one of New York Times’s Best Books of 2014, which is how I came across it that year.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a classic for readers who love British history. It’s already widely read, but if you have never checked it out, it’s a wonderful book about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. I’m not a history buff by any means, but I still loved this book because of Mantel’s powerful writing style and incredible storytelling. Bring Up The Bodies is the second in the series, and I’m looking forward to the third, apparently coming out in 2020. Amazingly, both Wolf Hall AND Bring Up The Bodies both won the Booker Prize.
Reading with a Side of…
I’m digging this Wicked Weed sour! Very watermelon and only slightly tart, so it’s very drinkable and refreshing.