Don’t fall for the rhetoric — the past wasn’t as simple as you think

Ghost Wall’s time frame shifts quickly to the early 1990s where, in the same boggy part of northeast England, 17-year-old narrator Silvie and her parents are trying to recreate what it was like to live before the Romans came. They’ve joined a small university team on an archeology fieldwork course, although it’s Silvie’s father, Bill, an amateur historian, who takes the mission most to heart.

Not only does he wear a scratchy tunic night and day, eschew the use of clocks, and hunt, skin and cook rabbits for dinner, but he’s also seeking more than academic insight: He wants to tap into a kind of primeval Britishness. Indeed, he has named his daughter after Sulevia, a Northumbrian goddess, because, as Silvie explains, Bill wanted “a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.”

Bill is a proto-Brexiteer: Silvie explains that he “didn’t want an Irish lineage, or Welsh or French. Roman Catholics praying to some Italian god, foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think.” What’s more, he believes that among the Celtic tribes in the Iron Age’s divided non-kingdom, women were subservient — thus excusing the way he lords over his wife and beats Silvie when she disappoints him. The professor leading the course is at first disquieted by Bill’s throwback chauvinism and then fascinated by his seemingly authentic approach, both to their project and to life. Silvie is increasingly concerned by the role she’s asked to play.

Moss, herself an academic, shows us how hard it is to overcome the lure of a notionally simpler past — as presented in the narratives used to justify populist politics and dubious men’s movements. Her prose itself rejects the way such stories are built up: While sharply hewn, it blurs distinctions between the present and the past, between the characters’ voices (represented without quotation marks) and Silvie’s own reflections, and between the objective and the subjective. The effect is tense, poetic, and compelling. Here, for example, she describes how the recreators interact with the “ghost wall” they’ve built — a palisade topped by animal skulls: “We sat on the ground before our raised bone-faces, sang to them as they gleamed moonlit into the darkness. We sang of death, and it felt true. Away to the south, orange light spilled across the sky from the town, and below us a single pair of headlights nosed the lane.”

We’re often told we live in an uncertain age, but uncertainty is built into the human condition. It’s dangerous to pretend otherwise, and skeptical Silvie risks becoming yet another victim of those who would do so, in this short but widely resonant novel.
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