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FESTIVAL | REVIEW

COUNTRY LIVING: The characters in Ghost Wall re-enact what it was like to live in the Northumberland countryside (pictured here) during the Iron Age, with considerable consequences

Cries of the past

A haunting tale of violence, Iron Age rituals and the modern concept of nationality, Jessica Hope reviews Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Sycamore Gap: Kevin Standage/Shutterstock, Sarah Moss: Sophie Davidson

I

s there such a thing as a native British person? In fact, has there ever been? Yes, there are characteristics which one might associate with the British – tea, the Queen, even David Beckham’s right foot as Hugh Grant’s character once proclaimed in Love Actually – but these are associations which reflect our culture, rather than our true roots. The origins of the inhabitants of these green and pleasant lands are multifarious and have evolved constantly over the centuries. Those who some think of as British natives, such as the tribes who lived here before the Roman conquest (the Venicones, Carvetii, Ordovices et al), all came from other lands. The British didn’t just “spring from English soil like mushrooms in the night,”as Sarah Moss writes in her latest novel Ghost Wall. Yet there are still people who think this is true – something we’ve seen in recent years with heated discussions around the likes of Brexit, Windrush and the rise of white nationalist hate crimes. Writing on her blog, Moss states: “I live in a country where xenophobia and nativism have become normal

Author Sarah Moss

in the last couple of years, where the rights of people perceived not to be British, or not British enough, are routinely denied…” And it’s views such as these that have a profound and lasting impact on the characters in Ghost Wall, as well as the reader. At just 149 pages long, this is Moss’ sixth novel (which is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019), and it makes for uncomfortable reading. There are difficult scenes – some of which are vague in description, and yet you seem to know how to fill in the blanks. It is hard to not read this all in one go as Moss’ narrative swiftly carries you into the protagonist’s tortuous world, where modern life and ancient rituals begin to collide. Set in the rural Northumberland landscape in the 1990s, the novel follows 17-year-old Silvie as she and her parents join an expedition for university students to live just as people did in the Iron Age – foraging, cooking, using stone tools and wearing itchy tunics. Her dad, Bill, a bus driver, is obsessed with Iron Age history, and has somehow persuaded the professor to let his family join in. We soon see that Bill is taking the experiment more seriously than the students and academics involved,

and his short temper and chauvinistic views are quickly revealed. Bill sees the Iron Age as the ideal model for Britishness – “…he likes the idea…that if he goes back far enough he’ll find someone who wasn’t a foreigner” – which causes rising tension among the camp. Through her careful use of language, we understand that it’s Bill’s domineering nature and acceptance of violence that follow Silvie and her mother around like a heavy, dark cloud. And it is this that consequently sends the reader hurtling towards the harrowing finale, where elements of the past – and the Iron Age bog girl from the gut-wrenching prologue – emerge in the modern day, leaving you breathless, yet also somewhat bewildered as to how the final moments escalated so quickly. Ghost Wall reminds us of both the delicacy and the cruelty of humanity and the natural world, and denounces those who continue to look to the past as representing our small island’s glory days. n Sarah Moss will be speaking at The Bath Festival on 19 May, 3.45pm, at the Literature Lounge on Alfred Street. Tickets £9; thebathfestival.org.uk Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, £12.99, hardback, published by Granta Books

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May 2019

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The Bath Magazine May 2019  

The Bath Magazine is Bath’s biggest monthly guide to life and living in the city of Bath

The Bath Magazine May 2019  

The Bath Magazine is Bath’s biggest monthly guide to life and living in the city of Bath