Ahoy there mateys! Many of the crew were following the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019. I never knew much about it and had tons of fun following the posts on the subject. That is where I learned about this book. I wish I could remember who convinced me to pick it up but sadly that particular note was washed overboard.
What interested me in this story was the idea of a family who chose to go on a vacation with an “experimental archeology” class where participants spend their time as though they are living in the Iron Age. Silvie is a teenager whose dad is the one obsessed with that era. While her father has been training her for Iron Age survival all her life, Silvie longs to be like other normal teens and experience modernity. But this trip is her father’s dream come to life and he is determined to experience it to the fullest.
I found this short novel (152 pgs.) to be both odd and enjoyable. Part of this be the writing style. The author has little to no punctuation, no dialogue indicators, and long paragraph formatting. So it took me a moment to understand what was going on. Overall, I wasn’t quite sure if this hurt or enhanced the story.
The Iron Age components of the book were the best part for me. One of the elements of this story deals with bog bodies. Wikipedia has a list of discovered bog bodies that be fascinating. Many of these bodies ended up in the bog via ritual sacrifice. The other element is that of the ghost wall. It be a wall where the heads of the ancestors are on posts at the top as a sort of mystical protection system. There is no real archeological evidence for a ghost wall only one fourth-hand account. The author decided to use one anyway. The wall is rather weird but interesting. And of course completely useless.
Much of the novel deals with the juxtaposition of modern folk playing at being primitive and with gender stereotyping. The college professor in charge likes the idea of pretending to be an Iron Age expert but has no practical knowledge. Both students and teacher occasionally sneak to the village to eat due to their abysmal foraging skills. For them the trip is a lark with no real stakes. For Silvie’s father, this is his chance to feel like it be life and death. And herein lies the problem.
Because Silvie’s father wants this experience to be authentic. He is the alpha male who hunts and preens when the other men praise his skills. Finally he can be in his rightful element with the professor and boys. The women are left to cook, forage, and do as they were told. Silvie and her mother are used to the father’s abuse and need to subjugate. However there is a female college student named Molly who has common sense and a no nonsense attitude. She is portrayed as the foil to the father. Molly existence also helps Silvie to see what life can be like outside of her father’s house.
This book is full of abuse and power issues. For such a short book, the author does a great job of letting the reader understand Silvie’s problems and family history in a concise fashion. The book is really portrayed from Silvie’s viewpoint so there be an odd mix of Silvie’s strength of naturalist knowledge marked against her lack of mental and physical power when it comes to her father and dealing with social situations.
It is the abuse angle that made this a less than fantastic read. This was not because it was too graphic or unrealistic. It just seemed so cliché in how it was used in the story and particularly in the ending. It overwhelmed the other interesting issues and concepts for me. It wasn’t bad per se but I would have preferred for Silvie to have more personal agency in the end instead of a rescue. And I didn’t like how the rituals were used in this book either. I personally felt that the story went down several very predictable paths. Molly could have been a much better catalyst then she was.
In doing research after finishing the book, there were lots of articles explaining that ghost wall is a parable for Brexit. I didn’t get that while reading but found the concept and article interesting. I so don’t analyze and deconstruct me books in the way the linked article did. Also here is an interview with the author discussing these issues. So while the book was only an okay read immediately after finishing, I did find the subsequent discussion, research, and concepts behind the book to be fascinating. No regrets and worth the read. Arrrr!
Side note: Besides the Women’s Prize, this book was also nominated for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize Longlist (2019). This “annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.” I didn’t really get a sense of the spirit of the place while reading this. Also this author’s non-fiction memoir about Iceland was nominated for the same prize. I didn’t know the same person wrote it until writing this review and previously abandoned ship on that one. But the judges seem to love her work.
Goodreads has this to say about the novel (shortened by me cause spoilers!):
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 . . .
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.
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