Last week the Women’s Prize long list was announced, and I was quite shocked that I had only read one of the books chosen. Normally I’m pretty on it with my women writers, and having tackled the Man Booker long list last year, I decided that this time I would read all of the Women’s Prize nominees, having noted that one of my reading intentions for the year was to get through more novels penned by women. So at the weekend I took a trip to Waterstones with the intention of buying Normal People. If you read these posts a lot you’ll know I recently read Conversations with Friends and Mr Salary, and since I enjoyed it so much and read it so quickly, I wanted to get my hands on another Sally Rooney piece. However, when I got to the book shop, I was drawn in by the little hardback Ghost Wall, published by Granta in 2018. In recent weeks, I’d seen a lot of people raving about the beauty of Sarah Moss’s language on twitter, and since I’m currently looking for inspiration to write myself, I decided to go for this instead.
I do not regret my decision. Considering the book is only small, 149 pages to be exact, it packs a huge punch. There was not one moment of this book that I didn’t enjoy, and at no point in reading it did I zone out, or hope for the narrative to speed up in anyway. It is the perfect size. Moss crafts an intelligent and historically-informed tale, documenting an archaeological field trip from the perspective of Silvie, daughter of a bus driver who is obsessed with the Iron Age period. Her Dad takes her and her mother along on this trip which intends to show a group of students, Molly, Dan and Pete, the ways of Iron Age survival, supervised by a Professor in Archaeology. Despite the small time frame of the story, our perspective spans history, and comparisons between our roles as humanity are constantly drawn upon. I really loved the unique concept of Ghost Wall, and I felt enlivened by the depth and provocative nature of it.
‘I could, after all, be going into the wood to pee, or getting a drink of water. Without a house, it occurred to me, it is much harder to restrict a person’s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.’
One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the way Moss contrasts the beauty of the Northumberland landscape with the haunting undertones of the story, which are intermittently suppressed and released by the narrator. Her perspective is important. She is a woman who wants freedom, wants independence, wants to be liberated in her body and in her life, but is at constant war with an inner conflict she has been conditioned to feel. Familial relationships are complex and difficult for her to navigate, and so we are constantly thrown in and out of a narrative which reflects on everything from violence to historical origins to nationhood, or more importantly to Silvie, regionalism. I loved her as a character. She is sarcastic but insecure, proud yet fearful, and intelligent but doubtful of herself. She knows the landscape better than anyone, but the harrowing nature of that knowledge and how it seems to control her pervades her survival expertise, somehow putting her at risk. The key thing that I took away from Ghost Wall is that patriarchy and violence in women’s history are inextricable — Moss captures its lack of development between the Iron Age and the present, despite her engagement with a vast and seemingly endless temporal stretch.
‘I tilted back uncomfortably, the pool not wide enough for me to lean, but the water stroked my sunburn, soothed away the itchy sand. I crossed my legs, tucked my feet under my thighs where the mud was slick and cool, felt cold water filter through my knickers and right inside me. I looked around again and struggled to undo my bra the way Molly had undone hers, hands behind my shoulders, let it lift away from my shoulder blades, felt my nipples harden like hers as I leant forward and dipped them in the cold marsh water.
‘I thought then about what might be around me, folded in the peat, what other limbs might be held in the same dark water, what other eyes closed, and that’s where I was when Dad and the Prof came striding over the heather.’
As well as a strong sense of conflict, the book also highlights a very important aspect of women’s writing for me : female friendship. Silvie begins the novel feeling quite alone. Her mother is distant (understandably), and seems weak. Her father is overpowering and aggressive. She doesn’t seem to have friends, and so when she goes on the camp and begins to build a relationship with Molly, something important is born from the text. Molly isn’t perfect, but her morals are intact from a feminist perspective. She plays a key role in provoking thought from the reader on a range of women’s issues, and the way Moss creates that image of her, and constructs her personality so intricately, really affirms the deserving nature of this book and its place on the Women’s Prize long list. It’s frank and illusive discussions of gender, sexuality, nature, history- all combine so effortlessly to make up this dark and delicious read.
The most overwhelming feature of Ghost Wall is the language. It is so !! beautiful !! I can’t express how gorgeous and well thought out every line seems to be. The descriptions of nature were so beautiful and really resonated with me – I could picture the North where I grew up. From moors to marshes, beaches to bogs, Moss creates it all. The images you create in your head could not do justice to the almost-mystical world she describes, but always capturing the dark sensation of something awful lingering behind you.
‘They made drumming, as the eastern sky darkened and stars prickled above the band of pale cloud. They made chanting, and I found myself joining in, heard my voice rise clear, hold its notes, above their low incantation. We sat on the ground before our raised bone-faces, sang to them as they gleamed moonlit into the darkness. We sang of death and it felt true. Away to the south, orange light spilled across the sky from the town, and below us a single pair of headlights nosed the lane.
Why not, after all, make a ceremony for the animal dead, for those we have deliberately killed. There is still a dying.’
As you know, I don’t do star ratings, but I’d give this a solid five if I did. It deserves more. There’s something entrancing about this book that makes you want to switch off the world and devour it in peace and loneliness. I cried at the end, and considering it is so short it really grasps hold of all of your emotions and doesn’t let you go until you’re exhausted. Seems like a very dramatic description of a book but I really loved it and I feel like my perspective on writing and what it means to write a good book have really been refreshed by Ghost Wall.
Thanks for reading this review, I hope I have provided some insight into a book which has really shook me to the core. I think people have a lot to gain from it, and I look forward to reading some more Sarah Moss in future. But firstly I’ll be tackling another from the Women’s Prize list. Any recommendations for what I should purchase next?