Ghost WallBook - 2019
Spending her father's vacations at an Iron Age reenactment anthropology field site that requires participants to use period tools and knowledge to survive, Silvie begins to envision her own future before a spiritual ritual involving human sacrifice raises disturbing questions.
A Southern Living Best New Book of Winter 2019; A Refinery29 Best Book of January 2019; A Most Anticipated Book of 2019 at The Week, Huffington Post, Nylon, and Lit Hub; An Indie Next Pick for January 2019
“Ghost Wall has subtlety, wit, and the force of a rock to the head: an instant classic.”
—Emma Donoghue, author of Room
"A worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evoked existential dread, but contained it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.”
—Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker
A taut, gripping tale of a young woman and an Iron Age reenactment trip that unearths frightening behavior
The light blinds you; there’s a lot you miss by gathering at the fireside.
In the north of England, far from the intrusions of cities but not far from civilization, Silvie and her family are living as if they are ancient Britons, surviving by the tools and knowledge of the Iron Age.
For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.
The ancient Britons built ghost walls to ward off enemy invaders, rude barricades of stakes topped with ancestral skulls. When the group builds one of their own, they find a spiritual connection to the past. What comes next but human sacrifice?
A story at once mythic and strikingly timely, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall urges us to wonder how far we have come from the “primitive minds” of our ancestors.
Spending time with her family at an Iron Age reenactment field site in northern England that requires participants to use prehistoric tools and knowledge to survive, Silvie begins to envision her own future before a spiritual ritual involving human sacrifice raises disturbing questions.
From the critics
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The 90s in Britain were, as the kids say, a mood. Boppy, melodic Britpop overtook dissonant grunge on the airwaves, things were fairly psychedelic, glitter was just coming back (but was still unpopular enough to be, weirdly, punk rock). Almost no one had cell phones yet, which meant extremely creepy things could happen without being documented.
Against this backdrop, teenage Sylvie is dragged to an Iron Age re-enactment retreat by her father. He’s an intelligent, blue-collar guy with a passion for purist versions of British history, and a survivalist streak. He harbours disdain for anyone who taints the purity of British heritage, or is unable to survive in the manner of ancient British forebears. If you’re thinking he sounds like a nasty piece of work, you would be correct. Only the dry, sarcastic spark of Sylvie’s voice makes the work of surviving her father bearable for the reader.
It’s the survivalist streak that endears Sylvie’s father to a professor of British history, who has decided to host an Iron Age reenactment retreat for his students. Sylvie’s father is meant to teach the small group all the survivalist skills they need. But, in so doing, he enforces an iron rule over Sylvie and her mother using the psychological terror they’ve both grown numb to in his home.
Meanwhile, Sylvie’s father bonds with the professor and the boys in the class over a project the women only see glimpses of. The men boil the flesh off animal skulls to construct something called a ghost wall, and enact his vision of ancient rites by firelight. They mourn the fact that they have no human skulls to use, as would be authentic. The men grow obsessed with sacrificial rituals that left near-perfectly preserved bog people bound and drowned in the peat.
As the book winds toward its conclusion, author Sarah Moss paints a concise, terrifying picture of the psychological effects of abuse into a scant 132 pages. Written in a compact, almost poetic voice, Moss expertly torques the tension into a stunning one-night read that will haunt readers long after they’ve closed the book.
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