The theme of Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Ghost Wall, can be summed up by a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even really past.” Sylvie’s father plans an unusual vacation for their family: joining a local college professor’s project to spend a couple of weeks living the way British people did in the Bronze Age. This involves some of the physical discomforts you would expect, such as foraging for food in the summer heat and living in huts. But things take a darker turn as Sylvie’s father’s fascination with the period deepens into obsession. And not all the hazards of the era were natural ones; there’s evidence that a nearby bog was a site of human sacrifice.
Several times, Sylvie’s father makes some pronouncement about how things were done “back then,” only for the professor to reply that experts aren’t really sure. The past that Sylvie’s father is so invested in is part constructed or imagined. Ghost Wall asks what happens when our narratives about “how things used to be” are challenged. It also points out our tendency to gloss over or romanticize the uglier parts of history. In the mind of Sylvie’s father, the early Britons were better than modern people, living close to the land and having a tight-knit community. They didn’t live in fear of nuclear war or mass shootings. But they also practiced human sacrifice.
The way Sylvie’s father allows his imagined past to become more real than the present also lends itself to social commentary. Nostalgia for “the good old days” can lead to a resistance to change or an unwillingness to challenge an unjust status quo. At one point in the story, the characters build the titular “ghost wall,” which was originally believed to be a defense against invaders. For Sylvie’s father, modernity itself is the invader, and he tries to keep it out with the ghosts of the past, whether metaphorical or literal.
For such a short book, Ghost Wall is surprisingly complex in its themes. However, I found my enjoyment of it undermined somewhat by the simplicity of one of its central characters. Sylvie’s father is so one-dimensional that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him. I think the story of his growing obsession would have been stronger if he had started out as a stern but reasonably decent person and steadily become harsher and more unstable as said obsession deepened. As it is, he feels like a cardboard cutout, which stands in startling contrast to the nuance of the rest of the book.