Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Published by Granta

For those of us with a junior cert level appreciation of the Iron Age, we tend to think of it as a time of pre-Christian farmers and foragers with a burgeoning taste for bling. Ireland had a separate but parallel Iron Age to Britain which ended pretty much when Christianity came to town, but it’s understood that the Iron Age in Britain was supplanted by the Roman invasion. In both cases, what with the ritual human sacrifice, lack of sanitation and anything remotely resembling comfort, the Iron Age is not necessarily the era of which a sane person would wish to visit had they the time-travelling means, despite the allure of a nice brooch or torque.

Yet that’s where 17-year-old Silvie sort-of finds herself, when she and her mother are dragged to a summer’s Iron Age camp restoration by her oppressive father. A very enthusiastic amateur, Bill and his family are there to assist an archaeology professor and his three undergrad students in their immersive experience of day to day early Iron Age life, in the Northumberland moors. Silvie has no desire to be there, and neither does her long-suffering, oppressed mother, but Bill’s iron fist demands their acquiescence, and so a pretty miserable summer of itchy smocks, food foraging and absence of shampoo, soap or toilet paper stretches before them.

The three undergrads, two guys and a girl, are spared sleeping in the ‘authentic’ hut constructed for the family, and are allowed the luxury of individual tents and sleeping bags, and aren’t above sneaking in sweets and alcohol to get through the boring days spent trawling the countryside for edible plants and fungi. Bill and the professor hunt and fish, hypothesise and theorise, all the while at each others’ urging becoming increasingly swept up into the Iron Age lifestyle, until the construction of a crude ‘ghost wall’ of the title, a mound which would have displayed grizzly severed heads and other body parts of defeated enemies to ward off any adversaries, brings about a regression into a more primitive mind set, which in turn has consequences beyond anyone’s imaginings.

Silvie is not only a sympathetic protagonist, but a relatable one, whose gutsy sense of character the reader can get behind right from the start. Teenage grumbling and mild antagonising are given short shrift when her father is out of the earshot and eye-line of the rest of the camp, but her sharp mind and sense of propriety are highly evident. She knows there’s a line she mustn’t cross with her father but often gets alarmingly, dangerously close to it. In an act of warning to the undergrads, who are disinclined to suffer Bill’s moods and tend to arrogantly mock his zealousness, amateur as it is, Silvie pares back her own protesting in order for them to do the same, lest a less than pleasant situation arise.

Some of Bill’s menace is directed towards Molly, the female member of the under graduate team, who, while taking the exercise less seriously than the rest, raises questions about feminism and gender roles that Bill holds absolutely no truck with. Silvie’s growing interest in Molly means she wants to protect her, although Molly, being older, better educated and crucially from a much more privileged background than Silvie, can hold her own. This is Silvie’s struggle, with her position at home and in society, with her evident intelligence and confusion about what to do with it, with her adolescence and all the messy problems that brings.

Ghost Wall captures a time though unspecified appears to be the early 90s, when great change was afoot. The Berlin Wall is down, the lasting effect of the 80s recession is finally evening out, opportunities and advantages for women are increasing all the time. But, as in any moment in time, Iron Age or present day, when a person with a chip on their shoulder and a sense of entitlement to match is provoked or encouraged they can become a great danger. While the book has a light, even humorous touch at times, following the antics in the camp, it also skillfully and darkly unfurls a deeper human story; one, unfortunately, for the ages.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 30th January 2019

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