Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: The Man Booker wish that got away

Cover imageRegular readers may already have noticed that I’m a fan of Sarah Moss’ writing – Names for the Sea, Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone have all been given an outing here – and with Ghost Wall, it seems she’s surpassed herself. A mere 150 pages long, this novella is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie has been dragooned into a summer project by her father, a bus driver and enthusiastic amateur historian. Together with three students and their professor, she and her parents will live as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, cooking what they forage and dressed in rough spun tunics. Sylvie’s used to Bill’s didactic ways. She knows more about their subject than Molly, Pete and Dan who are playing at re-enactment, sloping off to the local Spar for covert supplies and spending the odd illicit evening in the pub. Molly applies her nail varnish and changes her matching bra and pants regularly, frivolities Bill wouldn’t permit Sylvie or her mother, Alison. Women disgust him. Easily offended by the slightest show of knowledge other than his own, Bill takes his frustrations out on Alison who’s relegated to cooking their meagre meals. As the hot summer days wear on, Sylvie and Molly become close. Molly becomes increasingly unsettled by marks on Sylvie’s body, marks she tries to hide. Flush with their success at the recreation of a ghost wall, used by the Ancient Britons in an attempt to repel the Romans, the professor and Bill are intent on another, more sinister re-enactment.

Told through Sylvie’s voice, Ghost Wall is a much tighter piece of fiction than the four previous novels I’ve read by Moss. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book – from Sylvie’s shame to the sneering voice in her head – offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the landscape in hot weather:

Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.

Walking up there, it feels as if you’re being offered on an open hand to the weather, though when you look down there are plenty of soft little hiding places, between the marsh grass in the boggy dips and in the heather, vibrating with bees, on the slopes.

The novella’s climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. This is such an impressive piece of work. At the end of my Man Booker wish list I said that I might well read a gem published before the deadline that I would regret not including and this is it. Once again, however, the judges disagreed.

30 thoughts on “Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: The Man Booker wish that got away”

  1. This is sitting on my kindle waiting for a moment when I haven’t got something that has to be read for a deadline. It will be my first Sarah Moss, selected as a result of your championing her. I’m glad to read that you think so highly of it.

    1. I think you sowed some seeds during your novella month. I seem to have read more this year than in any other. That’s an interesting theory and a shame if true. I think they require more disciplined writing resulting in much tighter work. But I don’t need to convince you!

  2. I totally agree with you Susan. This is my first experience with Sarah Moss’s work and I was blown away. It is my book of the year so far and will take some beating. The first two pages alone are stunning.

    1. And that climax is both horrifying and transfixing. I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Moss but this seemd to me to be her most mature work. Eagerly anticipating her next novel.

  3. This sounds fantastic. And I’m very happy to hear that it’s only 150 pages… I’ve been wanting to try Sarah Moss for a while… this might be the one to squeeze in somewhere!

  4. A very compelling review, Susan. I’ve seen quite a lot of praise for this already, so much so that its omission from the Booker list does appear to be a bit of a surprise. Oh, well – I guess it’s always a challenge to predict these things!

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I always have to remind myself that it’s a case of decision by committee but this does seem a particularly egregious ommission along with the Kate Atkinson and Andrew Miller.

    1. Extraordinary omission, isn’t it? As is Transcription but I’m beginning to sound like a broken record with Kate Atkinson and awards. I have hopes for both for the Costa and Women’s Prize for Fiction.

  5. Sarah Moss is an excellent writer, and it sounds like this is another great read. When I’ve finished all my books (!) I have a promise to myself to read my way through her oeuvre. So far I’ve only read Bodies of Light (gorgeous read) and The Frozen Ship which is an excellent non-fiction book about Arctic exploration, but they were enough to tempt me to more. This will be on my future list. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Monthly Wrap-Up | September 2018 – Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire, Harry?

  7. Although I’ve only read The Tidal Zone, I can see where she could become one of my MustReadEverything authors. And the fact that this one is more tightly constructed only increases my interest. I’m intrigued by what you’ve said about the end of the story, but I’ll try to forget that by the time I do get to reading it (which won’t be a problem, I’m sure, as even though I might intend to read it next month, it’s more likely to be next year at this rate) so that I’m not constantly wondering “what could it be?”!

  8. I saw Sarah Moss at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and thought at the time I must seek out some of her books – it sounds like this might be a good place to start!

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