Ghost Wall (Moss)

Ghost Wall 
Sarah Moss, 2019, U.S. (2018, U.K.)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
144 pp.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Glasgow, Scotland, UK
Raised—Manchester, England, UK
Education—B.A., Ph.D., Oxford University
Currently—lives in Warwickshire, England

Sara Moss is a British writer who has written several novels, most recently Ghost Wall (2018), and a nonfiction book about living in Iceland, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012).

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Moss spent her growing-up years in Manchester, England, surrounded by strong family ties and weekends hiking in the mountains of the Lake District.

She attended Oxford, earning B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. She specialized in two areas of English literature: works of the far north and of the Romantic and early Victorian material culture.

Moss has lectured at the University of Kent, University of Iceland, Exeter University-Cornwall, and is currently Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. On her website, she claims she has "no intention of ever moving house again."

Cold Earth (2009)
Night Walking (2011)
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012)
Bodies of Light (2014)
Signs for Lost Children (2015)
The Tidal Zone (2016)
Ghost Wall (2018)
(Adapted from Wikipedia and the author's website. Retrieved 1/29/2019.)

Book Reviews
[A] compact, riveting book. Female sacrifice is never far from the center of [Moss's] concerns; she wants us to question our complicity in violence, particularly against women.… [Silvie's] presence in the novel is richly physical, and through her physicality, Moss immerses us in the pleasures of nascent sexuality and adolescent independence.… Ghost Wall is tautly framed by Silvie's point of view. Her conversations and interior monologues are embedded in lean, no-nonsense paragraphs. Moss is not much interested in giving Silvie and her rebellious tendencies room to breathe. This is a novel about being constrained, even trapped.
Ayson Hagy - New York Times Book Review

A master class in compressing an unbearable sense of dread into a book that can be read in a single horrified (and admiring) hour.… Ghost Wall is perhaps the finest novel so far to come out of the British literary response to these uneasy times.
Sarah Perry - Wall Street Journal

The fear produced by this fine-honed, piercing novel springs not from the superstitious customs of prehistory but from the more intimate horrors of human nature.
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal

[Ghost Wall] compresses large and urgent themes—the dangers of nostalgic nationalism, the abuse of women and children, what is lost and gained when humans stop living in thrall to the natural world—into a short, sharp tale of suspense. The way Moss conjures up the dark magic and vestigial landscapes of ancient Britain reminded me a little of the horror movie The Wicker Man.… The novel’s feminism, though, felt utterly contemporary.… I read Ghost Wall in one gulp in the middle of the night. It was 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

Sarah Moss possesses the rare light touch when it comes to melding the uncanny with social commentary.… Ghost Wall is such a weird and distinctive story: It could be labeled a supernatural tale, a coming-of-age chronicle, even a timely meditation on the various meanings of walls themselves. All this, packed into a beautifully written story of 130 pages. No wonder I read it twice within one week.
Maureen Corrigan - NPR

A short, sharp shock of a book that closes around you like a vice as you read it.… From the terse, dismaying little prologue, in which an iron age girl is marched out and murdered before an audience of neighbours and family, to the hair-raising, heart-stopping denouement, it hurtles along and carries you with it, before dumping you, breathless, at the end.… Ghost Wall is a burnished gem of a book, brief and brilliant, and with it Moss’s star is firmly in the ascendant.
Sarah Crown - Guardian (UK)

Ghost Wall, a slim but meaty book, is like nothing I have read before; its creepy atmosphere has stayed with me all summer.… Moss combines exquisite nature writing, original characters and a cracking thriller plot to make a wonderful literary curiosity. It deserves to pull her out of the bog of underappreciation and on to the prize podiums.
Alex O'Connell - Times (UK)

The curious allure of re-enactment is cleverly explored in Moss’s short, potent novel.… A Brexity tale to send shivers down your spine.
Rebecca Rose - Financial Times (UK)

Ghost Wall.… is further proof that [Moss is] one of our very best contemporary novelists. How she hasn’t been nominated for the Man Booker Prize continues to mystify me—and this year is no exception.… [A] gripping narrative.… It’s an intoxicating concoction; inventive, intelligent, and like no other author’s work (Five-Star Review).
Lucy Scholes - Independent (UK)

Reading Ghost Wall in the context of contemporary Britain only serves to highlight the folly of wishing for the good old days.… The book can be read as a Brexit fable, where seppuku levels of self-sacrifice are forged with lemming-like gusto.… There is a spring-taut tension embedded in the pages.… Moss’s brevity is admirable, her language pristine.
Sinead Gleeson - Irish Times

[Combines] the components of a thriller with a nuanced understanding of history, its fluctuating interpretations and its often traumatic effect on the present.… Moss’s sensual writing recalls the late Helen Dunmore.… A bold, spare study of internecine conflict.
Catherine Taylor - New Statesman (UK)

(Starred review) [P]owerful and unsettling…. The novel’s highlight is Silvie, a perfectly calibrated consciousness that is energetic and lonely and prone to sharp and memorable observations…. This is a haunting, astonishing novel.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) This novella-length story is thought provoking on multiple levels, with insights into primitive and modern societies, and coming of age in the face of family violence —Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

Tackling issues such as misogyny and class divides, Moss packs a lot into her brief but powerful narrative.

[Explores] issues of class, sexuality, capitalism, and xenophobia…. [Moss's] decision to use unformatted dialogue…can be frustrating…, but it also shows Silvie's panic, confusion, and longing.…. A thorny, thoroughly original novel about human beings' capacity for violence.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for GHOST WALL … then take off on your own:

1. Talk about Silvie, the narrator of Ghost Wall, and her family, especially her father Bill. Why is Bill so desirous of participating in the Iron Age enactment? Why is it important for him to lay claim to ancient ancestry?

2. Talk about Silvie's flat, almost deadpan, observation that "There was a new bruise on her [mother's] arm." What does her tone tell us about the family dynamics?

3. Why does Bill disdain the modern world? Do you feel any sympathy for his anger, beliefs, or his personal quest for authenticity?

4. Silvie loves the natural world as much as her father, yet how does she differ from his need to claim it as his own?

5. How does Bill and his family compare to the university group of students and their professor? Talk about the class division between the two groups—how does class evidence itself? How seriously do the students take the enactment adventure? What is their attitude toward Bill and his need for original Britishness?

6. What does Sylvie learn from the university students? How does her association with them alter her perception of the world and of her future? Have they corrupted her or enlightened her?

7. Talk about how traditional gender roles begin to develop as the Iron Age enactment continues.

8. What prompts the men's decision to build a ghost wall? Why does it indicate that perhaps they have gone too far in channeling the tribal past? What did the wall mean in ancient times—and what does a wall mean today?

9. Ultimately, this book poses the question about the wild-man archetype? What is the human cost of this type of mythological nostalgia?

10. Why does Moss open with a prologue of human sacrifice? How does it make you feel reading it? Are we, as readers, somehow complicit in the act of sacrifice… or not?

11. As the book progressed, did you believe Bill capable of sacrificing his own daughter to the gods of the bog, as Sylvie comes to believe? Is the author pondering, perhaps, whether society has truly changed after a thousand years or so?

12. What about the book's ending?

13. Overall, what was your experience reading Ghost Wall—did it evoke a sense of dread, curiosity, or something else?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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