Across the divide

© C A Lovegrove

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.
Granta Books, 2019 (2018).

A vivid image comes to me: a rudimentary fence of thin branches stripped of leaves, two or three sheep skulls perched atop uprights. It’s the 70s, on a Welsh hillside, and the kids – this is a family holiday after all, though some of us adults are excavating an early medieval site – have, unconsciously imitating The Lord of the Flies, fashioned their ramshackle barrier to keep us out of their den.

This memory emerged like a body exhumed from a peat bog as I read Sarah Moss’s novella. Set in the late 80s or early 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall Ghost Wall describes a poorly organised experimental archaeology summer school in Northumberland where a professor and three students are joined by Silvie, her cowed mother and her bus driver husband who fancies himself an expert in Iron Age prehistory.

But the opening pages take us back a couple of thousand or so years, when a community is about to ritually kill a young woman and then pin her down in a bog. Details echo what came to light when Lindow Woman was discovered in Cheshire, and of Danish bog bodies such as Haraldskær Woman and Huldremose Woman. How may this relate to Silvie as the modern group attempt to re-enact prehistoric life on an upland Northumbrian moss near the North Sea coast?

And will a ghost wall be sufficient to keep outsiders out, or will it fall just as the Berlin Wall did?

Reconstructed roundhouses, Castell Henllys, Pembrokeshire

I found this a tough, uncomfortable read as it touches on mental and physical bullying and domestic abuse in general. I recognised the sheer terror and also resignation that victims experience, the fear of accidently provoking the bully and the passivity that results from the nervous exhaustion of being constantly on the alert; there’s also the suppressed rage that comes from despising oneself and others for not standing up to the bully. So I found myself wondering whether I’d stay the course.

But of course I would: after all it’s Silvie who’s telling the tale, and though it’s expressed as a stream of consciousness it’s all in the past tense. Instead I started to pay attention to the individuals and to their relationships in the story, from the three students – especially Molly – to Silvie’s parents and the ivory tower academic. And though this feels like a closed group we do get to meet an outsider, which holds out hope that the wattle fence the group builds, in imitation of the ‘wall’ the ancients were supposed to have made to keep out ghosts, doesn’t in fact keep out the modern world.

But whether that divide will be crossed we can never be sure. In the meantime I had real anxieties about the soundness of this exercise in experimental archaeology. Even if set three decades back what was the business plan for this summer school? What health and safety provisions were in place? The Children Act 1989 came into force in the UK around this time, so was the professor aware that a child under the act meant a person under the age of 18, as Silvie was?

Sure, this was visceral at times, as it was intended to be. But it’s a powerful story underpinned by its consideration of issues which, sadly, continue wherever there are males obsessed with patriarchy and a survivalist sociopathy, rather more than the grown-ups playing at Swallows and Amazons as one character suggests. If you can stomach the details then it’s worth the read.


A contemporary novella read for #NovNov Novellas in November

16 thoughts on “Across the divide

  1. Not all that fond of passive submissive women; give me Jane Eyre standing up for her principles and telling St. John she’d go as his sister but not as wife; or Harriet Vane telling Lord Peter she’d be his mistress, but not his wife.

    If that was the only choice they had, they had enough self-awareness to choose the harder path, because the supposedly easier one would consume them and spit them out.


    1. It’s easy to say that, Alicia, but the fact is that the domestic violence depicted in this story, even allowing for it being set in 1990s Britain, reflects a never-ending reality. If we take murder alone, in recent years on average two women a week have been killed by their partners in the UK, usually preceded by long periods of controlling behaviour using various forms of abuse – physical, sexual, mental, financial and so on.

      To say you’re not fond of passive submissive women (in fiction, I’m guessing) is to misunderstand how manipulative some men are; and I’m saying this as a man who’s seen a family member fall prey to someone who appeared plausible in his false claims he’d reformed.

      And the situation is exacerbated when children are involved, and that certainly is the case in this novella. Don’t despise ‘weak’ women – there but for the grace of god we all go when ruled by abusive individuals, or governments, or corporate entities.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I agree. I was just trying not to blame men and the patriarchy for EVERYTHING.

        But if you’re going to open those doors, choices are never that simple, ESPECIALLY when children are involved – and the choice is to try to leave with the children or let the children see how you are treated. I know how many children are killed deliberately when the man can’t stand to let the woman get away.

        Jane and Harriet had SOME choice – they were not yet tied down by little ones.

        I don’t despise weak women at all – I’m just glad I was not born into a situation where shutting up and putting up was my only choice. First step: don’t let them get an education. Second step: keep them pregnant; replace or add to as necessary. Third step: repeat the cycle.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, then I’m glad we’re on the same page here, Alicia! And you’re right about being grateful not to be born or placed in a situation where, as you say, shutting up and putting up was the only option. Our daughter, despite advice to the contrary, believed she could make ‘a good man’ out of her first husband, but it was only after she became pregnant that she surely but steadily realised that the feckless rat was not changed at all; and after we rescued her and her children it took a prolonged court battle to ensure he was out of all their lives forever. Her second husband has been a perfect gentleman in every way, I’m glad to say.


          1. Sorry your daughter and your family had that to deal with – it is major, and the cracks show worse with offspring on the way – she is extremely lucky to have you in her corner, but has had to accept that help, which isn’t easy.

            I’ve been fortunate – my husband turned out to be entirely different from what I thought I’d chosen, and entirely acceptable, in a different way; 47 years and three great kids so far. Of the five girls in my family of origin, one had a cad and tried to hide it for a very long time. She is much happier with a beautiful second relationship. But we were brought up in Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s and it was like the States maybe 50 years earlier, and divorce was still a huge stigma.

            I think our generation post-WWII had a lot of cases where people didn’t know each other and each other’s families as maybe more settled peoples had before – and went into marriage unaware of things they would have known about, possibly, if they lived in the same neighborhood.

            All of Pride’s Children (the first volume of which I sent you) could be summed up by saying that eventually, it’s all about the children, and it matters who rears them. A lot. The decision-making comes down, in the second volume, to the statement ending one of the last scenes: “Only to make sure they never grow up with such a mother.”

            Liked by 1 person

            1. What you say about the effects on marriage choices social mobility has brought about since the mid 20th century rings true. Meanwhile, I have started your book, Alicia, thank you, but as you can see I’m also reading lots of other titles along the way and some are long-term projects which I pause occasionally and return to as and when!

              Liked by 1 person

  2. This is honestly one of my favourite books of all time—such a powerful, disconcerting, claustrophobic read. I remember first reading it on a train journey to France and having to put the book down after the first five pages, just so I could look out the window and breathe again. Amazing piece of work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The first half dozen or so pages for me too were disconcerting and claustrophobic, Elle, so much so that I honestly wondered if I could bear to continue – but I’m glad I did. Powerful it is, and a reminder that innocent women, young and old, have too often been made the scapegoats of societal malaises and many men’s inadequacies, as prehistoric sacrifices, victims of witch-hunts or merely as those responsible for inciting so-called ‘involuntary celibates’. Thank goodness for there are some (like Molly here) who are proactive on behalf of their sisters.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Strictly speaking I admired it more than enjoying it, Cathy, but I absolutely got Silvia’s suppressed feelings of rage, and the little gestures of defiance she made just to retain a sense of self-esteem. Powerful, as you say.

      Interesting too to read this after Convenience Store Woman, with Shiraha there expounding his flawed Stone Age Man philosophy and thereby echoing Silvia’s father’s essential misogyny.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – add your links here! #NovNov22

    1. The discussion in the comments above brings me to a similar discussion I was having with a friend on a particularly gruesome murder that’s come to light here and is being investigated. Murder by a partner who seemed to be consistently violent and yet the victim didn’t walk out even though it seems she did reach out to friends for help.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Being cowed and subdued by a bully is no joke, and psychologically and physically understandable, as I know from the research done by Emily (aka ‘the Bullying Doctor’ for her work and advice to those who are bullied).

        We see appeasement gestures made by higher order animals to more dominant members of their species, and normally that works, but unfortunately bullies can get drunk on power and escalate threat to actual violence and worse, as you know from the incident you mention.

        It might help, Mallika, if I add that there’s a resolution to this story, but that’s not necessarily much help if details distress or are liable to trigger anxieties

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know that I could bear to read this story, but really enjoyed the discussion in comments. We have had some appalling cases of domestic violence here, with one man driving off a bridge with his three children to punish his wife. He was the only survivor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a significant proportion of humans with really faulty wiring in their brains, and as a male I regret to say the substantial majority of those are men. What gives them the unmerited sense of rectitude in administering totally unjustifiable retribution on women is unfathomable.

      Liked by 1 person

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