by Sarah Moss
“I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own. How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?”
When I started reading Ghost Wall, the forthcoming novel from Sarah Moss about a group of people setting up camp close to Hadrian’s Wall as an exercise in experiential archaeology, I surmised from the demeanour of Silvie, its protagonist (and narrator), she was far younger than her actual age. I took her to be a precocious eleven, possibly twelve-year-old, only to discover after reading for some time she was in fact seventeen. The reason for my misjudgement was partly her father, Bill’s behaviour towards her, since he treated her like a little girl, but also because she complied with his every wish in a most un-teenage-like way.
Bill Hampton is a bus driver from Burnley with an all consuming interest in the lives of Ancient Britons and an enormous grudge against those he perceives as belonging to a higher or more educated class than his own. His depth of knowledge about living off the land has gained him a reputation among academics as being a handy amateur to have on call, and has led to him being invited, along his wife and daughter, to spend a short period living in a remote, authentically recreated Iron-Age village in Northumberland.
The family share the experience with Professor (“call me Jim”) Slade and the students responsible for building the village and making the scratchy tunics and crude moccasins they now must wear. Silvie is immediately attracted to the only female student in the group, a confident, prepossessing individual called Molly, who seeks to educate (some might say ‘lead astray’) her slightly younger friend.
At Bill’s insistence, Silvie (short for Sulevia) and her mum, Alison, move with him into a great open-plan roundhouse, sleeping on lumpy handmade bunks, while the others – much to his chagrin – opt to pitch their waterproof tents around the place. Bill is a stickler for authenticity and detests anything that reminds him of the modern world. His list of dislikes also includes women’s “undies”, footling about “like an old woman” and female sanitary products (which, he says, women managed “well enough without back in the day”). It is probably an understatement to suggest that women in general make Bill feel queasy.
It becomes apparent fairly early in the novel that Bill is both bigot and bully, though he skilfully conceals the results of the rough treatment he deals out to his wife and daughter from others in the camp. Alison tells Silvie her father can’t help his behaviour, that he’s always had a bad temper, and advises her to simply do as he says. She certainly tries to keep him happy, but she’s a bright young woman and forgets herself by “answering him back” (i.e., makes perfectly sensible comments and suggestions).
As Bill’s conduct becomes ever more obsessional and domineering, Molly begins to see that all is not well with the Hampton’s. Then events come to a head when a re-enactment of a sacrificial ritual is taken too far.
In her Acknowledgements, Sarah Moss reveals that the genesis of this story came firstly from participating in a Northumbrian residency to celebrate the Hexham Literary Festival, and then from the ‘Scotland’s People’ exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland, where she spent time with “the possessions and bodies of Iron and Bronze Age residents of the borderlands.”
Moss’s slender novel, which I devoured in one sitting, is menacing and brutal, but also filled with yearning, sensuality and hope. It has much to say about female affinity and friendship.
“Because they are men, I thought, because they’re in charge, because there will be consequences if you don’t. I didn’t see how she could not know that.”
Many thanks to Granta Publications for providing an advance review copy of this title.