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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Written in

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I found this book too upsetting to enjoy, I’ll say that straight away. It’s well-written, and full of fascinating dialect words, but there comes a particularly brutal point in the story, and I couldn’t go on. I kind of skim-read, fast-forwarded through the rest, which I feel bad about, but that was all I could do. The difference is, if I thought it was a bad book (The Night Circus, The Goldfinch), I’d have just set it aside.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of 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.

Harrowing is the word.

It’s written stream-of-consciousness style, and uses only minimal punctuation. This is not a book which one would use to demonstrate the correct use of punctuation for speech or paragraphing. Which is not to say that I think there is really any such thing as correct, but as a man who spends his working life trying to get young people to write with clarity, I do tend to favour tradition.

I’ll not be the first person to observe that this reminded me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which is a book I read following a Backlisted podcast episode.

Garner tells his story across three times, using mostly mimesis (dialogue) and very little diegesis (narrative). His setting is very similar: up there on the borders, where the Roman empire once hit a wall, and where there is mithering and clarting and thrutches and bannocks. And Garner’s book, too, contains horrific and harrowing brutality directed towards young women, which leaves you wondering who is this for?

So, Ghost Wall: Northumberland, iron age, archaeology, sunburn, students and professors, fathers and daughters. The female characters are better drawn than most of the men; the male students are barely there. But it’s good, but it’s harrowing. And if you don’t like being harrowed, clart yourself and stop mithering.

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