Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

51uQxBrCmlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Sarah Moss does a fine line in subtle violence, both physical and psychological. In Ghost Wall, a teenage girl, Sylvie, is spending her summer on an experimental archaeological site with her parents, a group of university students, and their professor. The opening chapter, however, takes us back to a much earlier voice, that of a young Iron Age woman at the moment of her sacrifice at a peat bog. The horrific intimacy of this girl’s death at the hands of those who have raised her is classic Moss – as with her earlier Bodies of Light (the book that made me love her writing), Moss is brilliant at capturing the pervading and complex sense of dread that lies at the heart of abusive relationships. To trace this form of control through from this ancient and disturbing display of love, ‘because you give what you most want to keep’, is what Moss does best – she is excellent at creating obsessive characters, absorbed in their work or studies, whose children often bear the brunt of their parents’ frustrations.

From the outset, Moss makes it clear that violence is an accepted part of Sylvie’s home life, ‘My mother sat on the stone where my father had told her to sit’, and both wife and daughter have normalised this man’s behaviour. Class is an underlying note here, although Moss is far too subtle a writer to make this overtly explicit, and Sylvie excuses her father’s behaviour, telling us about her bus-driver father’s correspondence with academics working in the prehistory field he had taught himself about,

We’d learnt to lie low, Mum and I, when these fat letters with university stamps on them crackled through the letter box. Mostly it meant a buoyant evening, silent but for the purr of the gas fire in the sitting room as Dad read and re-read his new treasure … but sometimes something upset him, maybe the thought of those other men who were paid to walk the places Dad loved and write the ideas he could have had.’

Moss allows us to see this vulnerability of the character, but she leaves us in no doubt that he is a misogynist and a bully. She deftly links generations of victimised women together; there is a sense of optimism struck in the defiant freedoms that the female student, Molly, seeks but it is clear that Sylvie cannot allow herself to even consider such ways of thinking.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Moss has responded to the establishment of the Staunch Prize, awarded to a thriller in which ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’, by saying ‘for me the question is not whether to write about patriarchal violence but how to do so.’ Moss keeps the fact that young women can be made victims by their own families or societies firmly in sight but, by giving the narrative to Sylvie, it is the young woman who decides how her story is told here. This is a short and utterly riveting novel – highly recommended.

5 thoughts on “Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

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