For this month's Book Club the author Jen Campbell reviews Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.
Despite taking place in the nineties, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss has a presentness reminiscent of Ali Smith's seasonal quartet and Olivia Laing's Crudo. Set in Northumberland during an archaeological experiment where a young girl, her family, and a group of students are living as ancient Britons for the summer, it's an examination of the cyclical nature of time, the things we sacrifice and the lines we draw.
I do not know what my father thought I might want to do in those days but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I couldn't do it.'
One of Moss's key strengths is the way she writes teenage girls. The voice of Miriam, a girl who collapses at school in her novel The Tidal Zone, was so on point it made me want to simultaneously hug and slap my teenage self. Silvie, our narrator in Ghost Wall, is different: less sure of herself, having been taught to hide away, yet equally believable. She peers out through the pages, clinging to the first person voice, visible to us in a way that isn't permitted off paper. She is a ghost inside her family, controlled aggressively by her father, longing for the freedom gifted to the upper class students camping with them. She witnesses the time' that is handed to them by their class, while she is left foraging for thyme' in the undergrowth. She longs to be solid, to have space, to have money. Moss conjures Woolf's ghost: Silvie needs a room of her own. She needs space to play at being herself.
This brings us to a key theme of the book: performance. These characters are playing by reenacting Iron Age life; in front of her new friends, Silvie is playing at being someone who doesn't have an abusive father; her father is playing the role of someone who can use historical context to demand the unquestioned respect he feels all men are due. Aside from the last example, playing, on paper, is healthy. We all need room to experiment to try. It brings to mind Barrie's Neverlands: imagined places that live in the psyches of children, islands that are combed through by mothers late at night. Neverlands are safe spaces where our childhood selves can battle with our parents (Peter being a manifestation of Wendy, Hook being her father), so we can decide whether or not we're ready to grow up. But what happens when Neverlands become reality? When fairy dust turns to mud and swords can actually kill you? Ghost Wall examines this divide between play and menace, in the vein of The Third Wave experiment: the mob mentality of a group of people kidding themselves that what they are doing is just pretend just for fun until it's not.
Dad didn't like the Irish, tended to see Catholicism in much the same light as the earlier form of Roman imperialism. Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think. He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germany or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.'
Silvie's father is an overgrown Lost Boy. He is part of a working class that's been abandoned by its government and forgotten by society. He clings to nostalgic ideas of what England used to be, an England long before his time where, he feels, he would feel at home. It's a fictional place, a literal never land and a selective narrative that's been handed down to him, moulded by patriarchy and imperialism and, ironically, the elite he despises. Nestled by the Scottish border, Ghost Wall touches on divisions within families, countries and continents. It's this which means the book is not only ghosted by the past it explores, but it's also ghosted by its future. Brexit haunts it. Trump haunts it. This little book will haunt you, too.
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. As a thank you, all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, the next book to be reviewed. Prize draw ends Monday 10th December.
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