By Sarah Moss
132 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $22.
Sarah Moss’s eerie new novel, “Ghost Wall,” opens with an incantatory prologue. A young woman is being prepared for sacrifice. The final sky she will ever see fades above her as the twilight is buffeted by drumbeats. She is stripped and bound, the hair shaved from her head, while friends and family stand in witness. When knives and ropes and stones are deployed against her, no one protests, no one falters. The blood ritual binds the community together as surely as the pounding of the drums. There is an art to the preparation of a sacrifice, and as the prologue draws to its shivery end, we sense the intoxicating power of that art. Before we have read two pages, Moss has made us complicit in an act of primal violence.
“Ghost Wall,” Moss’s sixth novel, is a compact, riveting book. Female sacrifice is never far from the center of her concerns; she wants us to question our complicity in violence, particularly against women. Her protagonist is Sulevia “Silvie” Hampton, a 17-year-old working-class girl fueled by a compelling mix of restlessness and moxie. Silvie has been forced to join her parents on a two-week re-enactment of Iron Age culture staged on the moors of Northumbria. Her father, a bus driver, is obsessed with the idea of “original Britishness,” believing that if he digs deep enough into his nation’s history he will find someone who isn’t a foreigner. He talks his way into the re-enactment, part of a university course in “experimental archaeology” organized by a wafty, opportunistic professor who seeks to provide his students with a flavor of the past. Silvie’s mother is a browbeaten second fiddle. The three university students who join the camp have signed on mostly as a lark. They are willing to slum as costumed hunter-gatherers between summer getaways to the Continent.
For Silvie, however, the endeavor is not merely a game. As much as she resents her father’s prejudices, she is proud of the outdoor skills he has taught her. She asserts herself when the students mock her unsophisticated background. She is no pushover. Yet she remains wary of her father, of his fierce devotion to the “mad play” of the re-enactment. Silvie knows from bruising experience that he is prone to brutality. What will he be willing to sacrifice on the altar of his quest for cultural purity? And how will she respond?
From the start, Moss presents Silvie as attentive to the natural world. Unlike her mother, who stays close to the reconstructed roundhouse and tends the campfire, Silvie wanders. She is attuned to the habits of birds and bats and insects. She can identify roots and herbs. She reads waterways as if they were stanzas of music. Her presence in the novel is richly physical, and through her physicality, Moss immerses us in the pleasures of nascent sexuality and adolescent independence.
There is great strength in Silvie. She gathers much of the encampment’s food. She shows the male students, Dan and Pete, how to joint rabbits, the kind of “boys’ thing” at which she excels. Still, Silvie harbors contradictions. She whines about the inconveniences of Iron Age clothing. And she is so underwhelmed by the hard-won diet of bannocks and gruel, she partakes of contraband sweets purchased at a nearby convenience store. Like most teenagers, she is a whirring emotional whipsaw.
“Ghost Wall” is tautly framed by Silvie’s point of view. Her conversations and interior monologues are embedded in lean, no-nonsense paragraphs. Moss is not much interested in giving Silvie and her rebellious tendencies room to breathe. This is a novel about being constrained, even trapped. Silvie soon finds herself hemmed in by her father’s abuse, her mother’s numb codependence and the students’ thoughtless privilege. Time and again, she fights through these obstacles to speak her mind or claim dominion over her body. But her battles come at a cost. Despite her considerable spirit, Silvie does not possess an unlimited trove of self-worth. Like most victims of abuse, she is in thrall to her abuser. To avoid pain, she can be persuaded to accept her lot, to obey. Sometimes, she tells herself, it is “better just to take what’s coming to you anyway.”
Moss is sharply skeptical about historical re-enactment, especially the kind romanticized by men who seek lost “gender hierarchies.” She salts the novel with women who practice ancient skills with modesty, who honor historical experience without slavishly imitating it. There is the university lecturer who visits the camp to demonstrate basket weaving. There is the midwife, Trudi, whom Silvie and the lone female university student, Molly, meet when they sneak off for cakes and iced lollies. Trudi is bemused that the professor hasn’t asked “people who know” about local flora and fauna “rather than looking it all up in books.” And it is Molly — irreverent, intellectually curious, sexually bold — who probes Silvie’s attachment to her father and models possible paths to freedom. Indeed, Silvie’s poignant attraction to Molly sounds the deepest notes of desire in the book.
If most of the women in “Ghost Wall” find solidarity through collaboration, the men become transfixed by their desire “to kill things and talk about fighting.” And it is with this theme that Moss lays down perhaps the most potent marker in the novel. The Berlin Wall has fallen not long before it takes place, leaving England vulnerable to new tides of immigration. In the shadows of Hadrian’s Wall, that most British of artifacts, the men construct a “ghost wall,” a palisade crowned by freshly boiled animal skulls. A ghost wall, the professor tells the group, was the Britons’ “last-ditch defense” against invading Romans. Building it, and performing ad hoc sacraments at its base, infuses the men with tribal passions. They are ready to defend their territory.
The professor’s admonition that “there’s no steady increase in rationalism over the centuries,” that it’s a mistake to think the Britons “had primitive minds and we don’t,” falls on deaf ears. Even he forsakes this advice as the novel careens toward its savage end. As Silvie knows all too well, “ancient knowledge runs somehow in our blood.” How many of us believe we can control those ancient impulses? How many of us are sure we would never, ever sacrifice the thing we love?
Alyson Hagy’s most recent novel, “Scribe,” was published in October.
Follow New York Times Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.
Source: Read Full Article