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.
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.
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