A book about experimental archaeology and family violence that’s brimming with glorious dread and that closes in around you like a vice. The novel’s short 160 pages are absolutely electrifying and seem far bigger. Best enjoyed during the witching hours of 11pm and 3 am.
Ghost Wall opens with an ancient hair-raising scene, of a young woman being ritually cast into the depths of a bog by her tribal community.
Next we are ripped out of the past and nearer to the present – sometime in the 1980’s in rural Northumberland. Where Bill ( a moody and aggressive bus driver/amateur historian) along with his long-suffering wife and 17 year old daughter are joined by Professor Slade (a posh out-of-touch gentleman) along with his acolyte students who are similarly priveleged.
Over one week during the height of summer, the group is tasked with recreating a neolithic hunter-gatherer community replete with old scratchy tunics, rudimentary hunting of small animals and foraging for edible weeds close to the shores of an all-consuming bog.
The story is driven by the metallic hollowness of fear and the threat of blood and violence. It’s told from the perspective of Sylvie, a 17 year old girl who has been brain-washed into believing that the will of her father Bill is God, and that every tiny move she makes will be scrutinised by him coldly and with hatred borne out of fear of her growing womanly body.
Bill is a towering and menacing character, he is full of venomous hatred and fear of the women in his life – his wife and daughter. His presence is like the spidery tentacles of an evil bog creature in the book. Bill seeks to control his family through violence and the constant threat of violence. His wife and daughter shudder and quake from this threat.
As someone who actually lived through something similar, I thought the depiction of Bill was rather one dimensional and lacked proper emotional complexity. All we get to see is a violent controlling man, but there is no real nuance or love underneath of it. Perhaps he is just a pure psychopath then, and is devoid of emotion and that is the point, but I am not sure? Real life violent relationships can be a lot more complex and nuanced than simply – man as an evil oppressor and woman as a suffering victim.
I’m not meaning that this kind of relationship doesn’t exist -the women and children who are murdered by fathers and husbands attest to this, but there are levels to it. And there are different kinds of violence. Some men are actually very loving, and have a good heart but have only ever been taught that violence is the only way to resolve problems in life. Some feel terrible about it and regret it afterwards. Try and spend a lifetime making amends. But that’s a whole other kind of story to this. This could also make a good book.
If someone makes damning feminist assessments that all men are violent bastards or are capable of violence (which is what this book infers) it’s because they do so from the relative ease of a privileged life that has been devoid of violence. Live through it and you know the truth is rather different. There are many shades of grey and many reasons why people become violent. Blaming and shaming all men does nothing to help them to work through their issues. But that’s another story.
It’s abundantly clear that this is a book about violence against women and children was written by someone who is seeing and understanding it from the outside, not the inside.
Even so, the tension and horrible feeling of doom and wondering when the next big thumping would come were very intense. So much so that this book should actually come with a trigger warning. It does cut very close to the bone. But that’s what makes fiction so amazing- is that it can provoke in you feelings and emotions which you can then analyse (hopefully) in the relative safety (hopefully) of the present, not the past. Moss definitely deserved the accolades she got for this novel, even despite these myopic ideas about gender.
There is a lot going on in this book in terms of class tensions. Bill is resentful, envious of Professor Slade’s privilege and how he ‘plays’at poverty and scarcity before rejoining his comfortable middle-class life. Bill’s intelligence and competence is squandered on his poorly paid bus driver job. He takes out this frustration on his wife and daughter in ruthless, controlling ways.
This possibly makes this book sound hopelessly depressing to read. Well it is, and also it’s not. There is something deliciously exciting about this book too, as though you are taking a journey into the depths of humanity’s violent, tribal and pre-cognitive core. Also, it is incredibly well put together and stays with you always. If you are into British history, archaeology, feminism, thrillers or all of the above then you will enjoy this book! 5*/5
Historical reading: More about the history of the Bog Bodies of Jutland and Northern Germany in the Iron Age