In the midst of a painful divorce and the reckoning that precipitated and pursued it, I’ve found myself desperate for stories that would fully immerse me in their worlds. If I came to Ghost Wall looking for a temporary escape from the pain of my present, I was surprised to find that Sarah Moss’s unsettling novel satiated that desire not so much by removing me from my world but by plunging me right back in it.
Ghost Wall takes place in Northumberland, up near the Scottish border, beyond my beloved Yorkshire, my own corner of the north. Ghost Wall’s living landscape is the moors and the bracken, the heather and the ferns, the bilberries that grow abundant and wild across northern moorland and which were a deliciously bitter staple of my childhood. Underfoot and at this novel’s heart lie peat bogs in which bodies have been preserved for thousands of years, resurfacing occasionally to pique the interest of poets and storytellers—famously Seamus Heaney and now Moss herself, her tactile prose following in Heaney’s wake.
In some ways, as other reviews have declared, this is a novel about contemporary Britain: about the border between England and Scotland and defenses built against a marauding empire (once Rome and now, supposedly, the EU); about white ethno-nationalism and far-right desires to construct an ancient indigenous ethnicity, purified of racial anxieties about modern Britain and false fears of unchecked immigration; about the pernicious intersections between resurgent white supremacy and patriarchal violence.
And yet Ghost Wall is most compelling for its sensory storytelling, and for the sophisticated way it links its tactile aesthetic to a complex understanding about the workings of trauma. In the smell of bog myrtle on fingers, the soothing touch of cool water on sore skin, Moss produces a lived sense of place in its fullest, most wondrous, most unsettling complexity. This is a novel that works its magic on the body and the mind.
* * *
Bookended by twinned accounts of ritual sacrifice on the Northumbrian moors, Ghost Wall is a powerful and unusual Bildungsroman. Its seventeen-year-old protagonist, Silvie, is named after the Celtic goddess Sulevia. Her jingoistic father’s obsession with British cultural lineage meant that he wanted, Silvie explains, to give his daughter “a proper native British name.” Dad leverages his longstanding obsession with the Iron Age, especially its violence and what he thinks of as its gender politics, to gain unofficial entry onto a field trip run by a professor who grows increasingly susceptible to his demands. The two-week trip is a required component of an Experimental Archaeology degree, a kind of hands-on learning taken to the extreme. Of the three enrolled students, Pete is impressionable, sometimes kind and sometimes mean; Dan is more grounded but lacking in backbone; and Molly is vibrant and uncompromising. Her firm feminist principles make her the novel’s moral anchor in the face of misogynistic violence.
Dad choreographs much of the unfolding drama. From the start, he is committed to a level of authenticity that goes beyond comfort or reasonableness. He forces Mum and Silvie to sleep in a replica Iron Age hut on straw-filled mattresses even as the enrolled students enjoy airbeds and sleeping-bags and modern tents. He disapproves of what he considers to be the Professor’s anachronistic permissiveness toward such pleasures, and in the early stages of the camp, the Prof holds firm. He explains that “authenticity was impossible and not really the goal anyway, the point was to have a flavour of Iron Age life.”
But the lure of the authentic increasingly takes hold, and the men close ranks, bonding over new and more extreme reenactment activities. When Molly sneaks to the village pub for some twenty-first century living and Mum keeps her distance tending the fire, everyone else builds a ghost wall made of rabbit skulls and animal bones. These walls, the Professor explains, had been a local people’s “last-ditch defence against the Romans, they made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arrayed them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was their strongest magic.”
As night falls, the group drums and chants and is transported to an ancient past. The wall becomes less of a game.
* * *
I stumbled across Ghost Wall far from home, but also not far at all—about 150 miles from Morgantown, West Virginia, where I live with my children, about the same distance between my childhood home and the site of Silvie’s seventeenth summer. I was in Charleston, the state’s capital, for a soccer tournament, and I made a point of going to Taylor Books, as I always do, because its expert staff understands that choosing books is fortuitous: that curated collections lead readers to books they might never otherwise find. Morgantown has no independent bookstore, and I had missed any literary chatter about Ghost Wall, but Taylor Books afforded the chance encounter that Moss’s novel deserves.
I was drawn to Ghost Wall’s cover, which conventional wisdom wrongly dictates one should never judge. Slightly rough to the touch, and slightly shiny, the dust jacket performs an object lesson in the tactility that is crucial to this novel’s understanding of the world. Alex Merto’s intricate illustration—a frame made of wildflowers encasing a moorland scene—recalls a tradition of portrait miniatures that developed out of illuminated manuscripts, many of which were created in Northumbria, like the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. The region’s book history is likewise referenced in the cover’s feel, perhaps meant to mimic parchment, just as it is indexed in the drop-cap illuminations that mark the plot’s progression. Always macabre, one illumination details an axe over a dead rabbit, another a rope. Similarly uncanny, the dust jacket’s floral miniature is rendered in an unnaturally fluorescent green.
* * *
Ghost Wall builds its narrative world from the tactile and the sensory, and in doing so it affirms the embodied nature of human knowledge. Early in the novel, Silvie and the other teenagers walk across the marsh grass toward the beach, and they recognize that their replica Iron Age shoes, with soft leather soles, facilitate a form of knowing that is lost with the heaviness of hiking boots. “You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet,” Silvie thinks. “You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin.” Molly prompts this particular realization; Molly who sees what Silvie cannot yet imagine.
Silvie knows all about the relationship between the body and its surroundings. When her father beats her after finding her bathing topless in a stream, she takes herself out of her body by securing herself in its present. “As the belt sang through the sunny air, I thought hard about the tree between my hands, about the cells in its leaves photosynthesizing the afternoon sun, about the berries ripening hour by hour, the impalpable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of roots below my feet and deep into the earth. I thought about the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made, about the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end.” In these successive clauses, Silvie locates Dad’s weapon in an extensive prehistory of life and suffering. Intuitively, she employs a tactic taught to trauma survivors by grounding herself in the physicality of the moment. Her sensory knowledge makes endurance possible.
Moss recognizes what trauma specialists know: that if all memory is embodied, only traumatic memory is triggered by specifically sensory reminders of acute fear. The experiencing subject becomes at once deeply present in the immediacy of their skin and returned to a traumatic past. In this context, Ghost Wall’s lyrical evocations of natural beauty do more than serve as a paean to the outdoors in general and the Northumbrian moors in particular. More profoundly, they mark the complex psychological relationship between trauma and physiology, environment and lived experience. They replicate the structure and impact of trauma itself.
* * *
Of the many novels I’ve read, Ghost Wall sticks around, holding me under its powerful spell. I can feel Moss’s storytelling under my skin and deep in my bones, these seemingly tired metaphors in fact bearing the uncommonly felt truth that trauma lives in the body. And yet the depth of feeling aroused by Moss’s conjuring of sensory experience is not a reason to avoid Ghost Wall but, on the contrary, to read it, repeatedly. Moss holds the rare ability to evoke a landscape in all of its ecological and emotional complexity: an unusual capacity to pull the reader in, not just through her perfectly paced plot but also in her meandering sentences that attend to the tactile like no other. Ghost Wall’s magic lies in the ways it replicates and reproduces traumatic memory, re-lived, over and over; it left me carrying its own ghostly traces.
Rose Casey is an Assistant Professor of English at West Virginia University, where she teaches and researches contemporary world literature, law and the humanities, feminist theory, and postcolonial studies. She’s published in various academic journals, and she’s completing a book on property law and literary form. This book manuscript, Aesthetic Impropriety: Property Law and Postcolonial Style, develops a new theory of literature’s ability to act upon the world.
About a Book is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that experiments with the form of the book review by coming aslant at texts old and new. If you’d like to write a column for About a Book, please get in touch with us.