Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall indicts fantasies of authenticity and tradition. These fantasies are pernicious because they confuse sacrifice with victimization. Moreover, they inflict their pain disproportionately — most of the victims are women.
Like all of Moss’s work — she has written four novels and a memoir of a year spent in Iceland — Ghost Wall is really smart. But its ideas aren’t stern, dogmatic, or bloodless. They’re expressed in deceptively simple prose and arise seamlessly from a compelling story. (I wanted to say “naturally,” but the point of the book is to critique naturalness, not as a meaningless concept but as one much open to abuse.)
That story is told by seventeen-year-old Silvie, who, together with her parents and an anthropology professor and three of his students, spends two weeks in the summer of 1991 reenacting the lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of Northumberland. Britons, her father calls them; Celts, the professor demurs, citing the current preferred terminology. In making this distinction, the professor ineffectually pushes back against Silvie’s father’s desire to imagine a purely British origin story. Silvie’s own name is short for Sulevia, a local goddess of springs and pools, or, as Silvie, quoting her father, half-reluctantly, half-defensively puts it, “A proper British native name.” As that “proper” suggests, her father’s idea of authenticity is moralizing at best, overtly racist at worst: describing the Picts’ resistance to the Romans (“the Romans are the end of what he likes”), he says “there weren’t dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?” (he’s already rejected Indian food as “Paki muck”). Her father, Silvie concludes, “wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” What he has instead is a job as a bus-driver that supports his amateur archaeology and survivalist escapades, and a wife and daughter whom he terrorizes.
The abuse is both psychological (“I did not know what my father thought I might want to do,” Silvie reflects, “but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I couldn’t do it”: an artful, even funny, observation that on a moment’s reflection isn’t funny at all) and physical. Here, for example, is what happens when the father comes across Silvie bathing naked in a stream:
You should be ashamed of yourself, I’ll not have my daughter a little whore, and only when I had covered myself and turned back to face him did he take off his Iron Age leather belt. Stand against that tree, he said, a rowan not much taller than me, the trunk against which I leant my forehead no wider than my face, and as his arm rose and swung and rose again, as the belt sang though the sunny air, I thought hard about the tree between my hands, about the cells in its leaves photosynthesizing the afternoon sun, about the berries ripening hour by hour, the impalpable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of roots below my feet and deep into the earth. It went on longer than usual, as if the open air invigorated him, as if he liked the setting. I thought about the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made, about the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end. Itching, scratching, wind and rain and sun. About the flaying, the tanning.
The passage is the more terrible for its beauty: I am particularly devastated by the irony of the belt singing through the sunny air, as if relishing its pain-making task. Is it to counter that tendency, to turn it into an ally, that Silvie begins to identify with the belt? Perhaps not, since the identification is with the animal from which the belt was made rather than the belt itself. What does it mean for Silvie to think this way? Is she asserting herself? Protecting herself? Or is that the same thing? Are her meditations on metamorphosis a way to master her victimization? What’s clear is that Silvie displaces the assault on her own skin — the scars of which she will spend the rest of the book trying to hide — by contemplating the animal’s. But reflecting on the animal’s sensations of fear and pain only returns her to her own. By the time we reach the penultimate sentence, although we know logically it must refer to the animal, grammatically the absence of a subject makes it hard to distinguish between victims. Silvie, too, is being flayed and tanned.
It is telling that Silvie moves from thinking about a tree to an animal. The characters spend most of their time gathering what food they can from the land (rabbits, fish, mussels, bilberries, burdock roots, wild thyme) which Silvie’s mother valiantly seeks to make it into something edible. The emphasis on gathering, however, elides Iron Age reality, as Silvie is well aware: “While I was glad we weren’t going to be hacking the guts out of deer in the woods with flint blades, I thought the Professor’s dodging of violence pretty thoroughly messed up the idea that our experiences that summer were going to rediscover the lifeways of pre-modern hunter-gatherers.” Or, as she more bluntly puts it, “there has to be murder done.”
Silvie fascinates because she’s at once in thrall to her father’s mindset and critical of it. She sees that to maintain life we must take it, but we might wonder about her insistence on the ubiquity of violence: “The whole of life . . . is doing harm, we live by killing.” At what point does realism about the facts of life and death (the “flaccid pink slices” of ham the students illicitly buy at the Spar, the local grocery, come from somewhere) become an excuse to justify one’s own victimhood? Like many victims of abuse, Silvie and her mother blame themselves for their abuser’s actions. Silvie’s mother says to her daughter: “If you didn’t wind him up all the time he wouldn’t do it”; Silvie tells Molly, the only female student: “People don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.”
Molly is the most skeptical member of the group. She is the first to sneak off to the Spar; later, when Silvie visits her tent, she is fascinated by the older girl’s contraband:
A sponge bag unzipped and spilling bottles of nail varnish and deodorant and face creams, a hairbrush webbed with pale hairs and a fruit salad of bobbles wound around its handle, crumpled crisp packets and sweet wrappers in a pile in the corner, a couple of battered paperback novels.
In this description of the remains a future archaeologist might face, the “fruit salad” of Molly’s hair elastics is particularly evocative. But Silvie’s perceptive eye isn’t drawn to the things as such. She cares about them because they’re Molly’s. They’re a way for Silvie to covertly express her fascination with Molly herself, especially the body that is varnished and deodorized and moisturized. In ways she can only barely acknowledge, Silvie is attracted to women. Although the novel doesn’t develop Silvie’s nascent sexuality, it subtly shows how homophobia compounds the misogyny so prevalent in it. Pete, another of the students, grins lewdly when he catches Silvie looking at Molly: “He has seen me . . . wanting to touch her hair and her feet. He knew.”
Perhaps what the man hates here — and in this he must surely represent at least Silvie’s father, if not all the novel’s male characters, or men in general — is a straightforward avowal of sameness, the way like can be drawn to like. Whereas he and the other male characters affirm difference (a different time, a different way of life, a different experience of the world), but their affirmation is false. Because what they really want to do is to make past and present the same, thereby affirming nothing more than their own will.
In the book’s most self-conscious moment, Silvie meditates on the allure — and risk — of identifying with the past:
That was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, we or our dead?
The ultimate way to know the past would be to live it, to erase the boundary between then and now. Which would be to erase the self, or, in the dominant metaphor of the novel, to make the self a ghost. The paradox is that to fully access the past we would need to no longer be ourselves. But the self that wants to know, control, and dominate cannot accept such effacement. The “logical” conclusion is that someone else — someone less powerful, someone less valuable — needs to be turned into a ghost, which is when oppression gets dressed up as sacrifice. The professor and Sylvie’s father urge the group to build a ghost wall, “a last-ditch defense” built by the Celts in their fight with the Romans: “they made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arrayed them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was their strongest magic.” Ignoring the suggestion of desperation in that description — “last-ditch” — the group stay up all night, drumming and howling at the moon. But that high fades, leading the men to go still further: they will reenact the tribes’ human sacrifices, as memorialized in the “bog people,” whose remains have been eerily preserved by the acidic water. Silvie is forced to play the part of the scapegoat.
Molly is horrified by the decision, Silvie scared. But the professor insists on his fantasy of complete immersion in the past, even if it requires hurt:
That’s why we should do this, he said, that’s what we’re interested in figuring out, the process of the killing, the momentum of the ritual.
Silvie, only a teenager, can’t think of a way to say no. Thinking back to the bruises on her mother’s arm, she remembers “the marks you get if you resist when someone’s trying to hit you,” but even her frightened acquiescence can’t save her when the reenactment gets out of control (the men tie her hands behind her back, take a knife to her face to cut “ritual” marks, and amass a pile of stones ready for a final, quite possibly murderous punishment). Only a deus ex machina can save her.
Ghost Wall is filled with lovely things. It contains vivid scenes, like Silvie’s childhood memory of falling into a bog on one of her weekly tramps with her father across the moors and being rescued by him. (The moment of course foreshadows her near-victimization in the reenactment, but it also shows the capable and loving, if not exactly tender, side of her father, without excusing him or making him sympathetic.) It is filled with expressions rooted in the Northern landscape, fitting for a book so interested in place: burdock roots are “clarted” with clay, pants are “kecks,” people are “clemmed” as much as they are hungry. And it offers beautiful metaphors, as when Silvie, on the verge of a panic attack, says, “My thoughts were beginning to flicker, my mind a bird against the window.” The beauty here is in the precision and surprise of the comparison: what could be more desperate than a bird knocking itself against something it can’t see? But what is the window? Is Silvie trying to escape herself?
But this very example allows us to ask certain questions that have consequences for our ability to understand Moss’s politics. What is the point of view here? When is this story being told? Which Silvie has the insight to describe her mind as a panicked bird? The teenager? Or the adult she becomes? In most of the book, the answer is clearly the seventeen-year-old, the one who says things like “I was only bloody right.” But then we’ll be given an elegant metaphor or a gesture towards the future, paradoxically expressed by referring to the narrative present as the past: “There was no shade, I remember everything a little flattened as if in one of those overexposed photos it used to be possible to take” (my emphasis). If it’s the adult, then we might feel more confident that abuse can be overcome, oppression escaped. But if that’s what Moss wanted, why are those hints so faint?
This uncertainty is amplified in the book’s ending, which is beautifully ambivalent. Silvie, rescued from violent male fantasies of sacrifice, spends the night at the home of a woman named Trudi Kelley, a midwife that Silvie and Molly meet at the Spar, who serves as a kind of fairy godmother to the girl. The book ends with Silvie sharing a bed with Molly, who falls asleep cradling her, promising Silvie protection it is unlikely she can give (elsewhere, Moss has made it clear that class privilege — Molly comes from an upper-middle-class Home County background — can foster other kinds of fantasies, like the belief that people can simply will themselves into a different, better life). Silvie doesn’t sleep: she lies “watching the full moon and then the dawn through the ivy-framed window of Trudi’s cottage the rest of that short summer night.” Is the window an escape hatch? Or just another barrier she will thrash against, like the bird in her metaphor?
Even for a short book, the end of Ghost Wall comes quickly, even abruptly. The first two-thirds are structured analogously to the aimlessness of summer. The sacrifice scene is a pretty surprising ratcheting up of intensity, and Silvie’s rescue even more so. If the reviews at Amazon are anything to go by, some readers have found the end implausible. But if we read Ghost Wall this way, we’re falling for the same idea of authenticity it calls out as harmful fantasy. We’d be confusing what’s “realistic” with what’s arbitrarily the case. When we say “life isn’t like that” we make it harder for it to ever be otherwise. Fantasies can incite change.
Yet Moss is evasive even in this regard. The English landscape, she seems to say, is objectively lovely. Nature, whatever that means, provides. But so does the Spar. We can find real solace in making things. But we might have more time for that making if we aren’t just trying to stay alive. The past is interesting in itself, not necessarily better, and it shouldn’t be used as a way to legitimate exclusion. That will only end in violence. We shouldn’t use the past to authenticate the present or as a measuring stick to separate who belongs in our own society from who doesn’t. Otherwise we’ll be like Silvie’s father, who likes museums, Silvie suggests, because “he likes dead things.”
Molly, by contrast, who imagines a future as a museum educator, wants “to make things be alive again.” A laudable desire, but the risk is that one fantasy simply replaces another. Vague ideas of freedom are better than oppressive domination, but they come with their own risk. Silvie knows all too well how dangerous the desire to make the past come alive is, how easily it devolves into a way to legitimate hurt, how much is at stake in “taking someone into the flickering moment between life and death and holding them there.” In this vivid, generous, and thoughtful novel, Sarah Moss asks us to consider whether Silvie, like everyone else society deems expendable, has escaped that precarious in-between state.