Tag Archives: Ghost Wall

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.

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription