Granta. 2018. 152 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78378 445 5.
They lead the fearful body over the turf and along the track, her bare feet numb to most of the pain of rock and sharp rushes. Chanting rises, the drums sound slow, unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart. Others follow, wrapped against the cold, dark figures processing into the dusk.
Ghost Wall begins with a stunningly vivid recreation of an Iron Age sacrificial ritual, and although the rest of the book is firmly based in the present, echoes of this ritual reverberate through it and the chill of fear comes powerfully to life in the final chapters.
Sylvie, whose experiences and thoughts we share for the rest of the book, is a young teenager. Her controlling, abusive father is a bus driver in a north-of-England town, but he is fascinated by British pre-history and has become such a self-taught expert in outdoor survival, foraging, and mountaincraft that archaeologists consult him and send him off-prints of their research. He takes his daughter to museums—"his temples... bone-houses of the ancient past," she calls them. And he has taught her all his survival skills. She is even named Sulevia after an ancient British goddess.
Now, he has brought Sylvie and her mother with him on an archaeological exercise in Northumberland he has devised in collaboration with a university professor from the south of England.
Professor Jim Slade wants his small group of archaeology students to "have a flavor of Iron Age life and perhaps some insight into particular processes or technologies." The students have built a roundhouse, where Sylvie and her parents sleep on splintery bunks with prickly straw-filled sacks padded with deer-skin. And everyone is to wear scratchy tunics and forage and hunt for food, because Sylvie's father insists on authenticity.
The professor is less rigorous. "Let the students sleep in tents if they prefer. There were almost certainly Iron Age tents also."
"Skin tents, Dad said, none of this fancy nylon stuff," Sylvie tells us, and she comments wryly that the tent her family used every holiday "was made of canvas the color of apricots and possibly left over from the Second World War."
Sylvie is an intelligent and often caustic observer of the way the students talk and behave as they cope with what, for them, is just another university course assignment. They are ignorant of the simplest countryside knowledge and skills, and they begin to respect Sylvie for what she knows and to use her knowledge to make thing easier for themselves. Sylvie, on the other hand, knows nothing of their privileged, "posh" lives and listens as they tease each other, use words she has only ever read, and talk casually of "going travelling" and of "inter-rail passes, Rome, Paris... Prague and Budapest." At one point she objects when the girl, Molly, imitates her mother's northern accent:
"Don't, I said, don't laugh at her like that, that's just how we speak... don't laugh at people's accents, you know yours sounds weird to me, posh... It's not a different country the north of England."
Over the few days of the exercise, Sylvie defies her father in minor ways, but when he catches her bathing alone in a stream he takes his belt to her. She hides her bruises as she always does, and it is clear she and her mother habitually tread warily around him trying to predict what might upset him. They assume, as do many abused people, that when he turns on them, they "asked for it" by provoking him in some way. But Sylvie still sneaks off with Molly, who buys forbidden food in the local town and hides it near their camp.
The men hunt and fish. Sylvie's father instructs the boys on how to skin and butcher a rabbit. "You start by peeling off the rabbit's skin. Cut off the paws, Dad said, like this, and run the blade around here. Slice along the leg..."
"The boys were visibly shaken," notes Sylvie. "Dan puked."
Watching her father's hands, she thinks of "his skin, my skin, the tanned skin of his belt, the soft furry skin of the rabbit, our surfaces, our barriers between blood and air."
When one of the boys, Pete, steps in a bog and has to be rescued, it revives Sylvie's father's fascination with Iron Age bog-people, and he talks of the bog-preserved human remains which often show signs of ritual wounding. And Sylvie remembers her own experience of the bog:
"Cold water clutched me, earth pulled and sucked. It wasn't quicksand, I wasn't being pulled down, but I couldn't get up either and the instinctive struggle made it worse. Don't move now, girl, Dad had said, I'll get you out, don't fret, but don't go wriggling ... I'd been sitting not waist-deep, but even so I couldn't help myself and it took a long time to work me free."
Rescuing Pete, the men had found a girl's boot in the bog, possibly Victorian, but it brings up, again, the topic of the ritual sacrifices to the bog of objects and people. Then "The Prof" decides to revive another local Iron Age ritual. They will construct a ghost wall, as the local tribes once did:
"...as a last-ditch defence again the invading Romans, they made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arranged them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was the strangest magic."
Sylvie and Molly are, at first, derisive when they find the men weaving the wall from sticks and willow withies:
"Jesus," said Molly, "they've actually made themselves Lego, haven't they, I suppose it's better than cowboys and Indians."
But the wall takes shape, with rabbit skulls boiled skinless by Sylvie's mother and the skulls of sheep and cattle sourced from a local meat market. "They set up the ghost wall towards sunset." Sylvie carried the skulls and bones to it and her father set them in place, then...
"They made drumming, as the eastern sky darkened and the 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 a low incantation. We chanted and 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."
The mood of ritual magic affects the group, drawing them together, but there is another ritual still to come, and Sylvie is at the center of it.
To say more is to give away too much, but as the book reaches its climax, the sense of danger, the rhythm of the drums, the dominance of Sylvie's father, and the cool experimental calm of the professor in these final chapters are chilling.
Ghost Wall is short but immensely powerful. Through Sarah Moss's writing, and especially through Sylvie, we glimpse the characters of the people who are drawn into her story, and we feel the magic of the land and the fascination and strength of ancient rituals. This is a thrilling and enthralling book.
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