In 1954, William Golding wrote a book that challenged conventional thinking about the nature of education and civilisation. In Lord Of The Flies, a group of choir boys are stranded on a desert island and, instead of behaving like the well-behaved little gentlemen that they have been brought up to be, rapidly turn into a group of flesh-hungry savages.
I am put in mind of Golding’s massively influential book by the latest from Sarah Moss, a too-frequently overlooked writer when it comes to major awards and the resulting international recognition. Moss is a serious talent, as this short offering of just 150 pages amply confirms.
There is no desert island in Ghost Wall but instead a bleak expanse of remote countryside in the north of England. On it is gathered a small group engaged in “experiential archaeology”, an attempt to live in the manner of the Iron Age people studied by Prof Slade and three of his students, Molly, Dan and Pete.
They are joined by the narrator of the novel, Sylvie, and her parents. Her father, Bill, is a bus driver by day and an obsessive about ancient history the rest of the time. The slightly unlikely pairing of academia and working class enthusiast comes about because of Bill’s advanced survival skills, which it is thought may bring insight into the way Iron Age people actually lived.
A sinister strand to Iron Age existence is introduced in the short opening prologue in which a young woman is led to ritual torture and death. After being held “in the time and space between life and death” she will become one of the bog people, those perfectly preserved corpses so beloved of archaeologists. It is a chilling opening and an apt preface to the way events on the moor will develop.
Ghost Wall is a tense read. From the very beginning stark differences in attitudes to the work in hand and to life in general are evident. Bill wants their experience to be completely authentic, using Iron Age tools, wearing rough woven tunics, eating only what can be found growing or living in the locality.
The professor is more relaxed, wearing tennis socks under his moccasins to avoid blisters, “after all, authenticity was impossible and not really the goal anyway, the point was to have a flavour of Iron Age life and perhaps some insight into particular processes and technologies”. The two men bond over the “manly pursuits” of hunter-gatherers, fishing and catching rabbits while the women stay at home and cook.
The group is riven with differences, including social class. “The Professor appeared after breakfast and started organising people in a way that made me wonder if he thought there were Iron Age professors, or maybe as if he couldn’t imagine that there were circumstances in which qualities other than being posh and having read a lot might put a person in change of everyone else,” Sylvie pithily observes.
The students, as southerners, regard the north as a foreign country which angers Sylvie, although she herself has never been to the south. The students talk about foreign capitals, their university courses and Inter-rail, while Sylvie and her parents have neither passports nor money.
Nonetheless, as the only two women of a similar age, Sylvie and Molly are tasked to work together and become friends. Sylvie, tutored by her father, has the local knowledge, identifying burdock roots and other edible plants while Molly shows a fine disdain for the camp “rules” and is quite comfortable nipping off to the local shop for an ice cream. Her independence and self-confidence offer a sharp contrast to the timidity of Sylvie who lives, with good reason, in perpetual fear of her overbearing and intimidating father.
Ghost Wall is a masterpiece of concision. When so many modern novels are in dire need of a good editor, it is refreshing to come across one that unapologetically restricts its length to what it has to say. Which is an awful lot. Through her narrative, Moss challenges us to think about brutality and violence, gender inequality and the lessons (never learned) of history.
She does so through a completely compelling narrative drive and a very appealing narrator in Sylvie, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who is by turns diffident and outspoken, compliant and rebellious, resigned and pragmatic. Yet despite her circumstances, she retains an independent spirit, in contrast to her mother who seems broken.
Readers of previous Moss novels will not need to be told that she writes beautifully. Whether evoking the landscape and the natural world or charting the dynamics between her strongly drawn characters, there is precision, elegance and, yes, a dark beauty. How her name is not more widely recognised escapes me.