“I can’t tell you where historical truth ends and historical fiction begins,” the novelist Sarah Moss has said. Over the course of five books, Moss has used this analogy to establish herself as one of our foremost literary forensic anthropologists, excavating that which has long been covered over or covered up before offering it, newly realised, to the light of day. Moss’s novels include Night Waking, in which a remote Scottish island is the eerie setting for exploration of past infant mortality; Bodies of Light, with Victorian Manchester home to a William Morris-style coterie of artists and social reformers; and, most recently, the history of the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral as the backdrop to modern-day parental anxiety in The Tidal Zone.
Moss’s sixth novel, Ghost Wall, while continuing this element of time-sifting, has more in common with her debut Cold Earth. Compact in form, both combine the components of a thriller with a nuanced understanding of history, its fluctuating interpretations and its often traumatic effect on the present. In Cold Earth, an archaeological dig in Greenland turns apocalyptic. Ghost Wall’s protagonists are a mixed group of amateurs and professionals spending the summer after the fall of the Berlin Wall at an archaeology camp on the site of an Iron Age settlement in Northumberland.
With more than a nod to the current state of the UK amid the economic and ideological severing of Brexit (a ghost wall is an Iron Age defence tactic, comprising a scarecrow of human or animal skulls to frighten away invaders), the book rewinds to 1990, and the possibilities of a post-Cold War freedom for millions of Europeans. Seventeen-year-old Silvie’s attempt to break away from an abusive father not only has parallels with totalitarian eastern Europe, but also with the sacrifice of a “bog girl” by her community in the sixth century BC, on the very spot where Silvie and her parents, together with a university professor and his students, are encamped millennia later.
Silvie’s controlling father, Bill (“he likes dead things”) is at first taken by the others as an amusingly unreconstructed Victorian dad caricature. A local bus driver, he spends his holidays coercing his family to endure his obsession with ancient Britain, about which he is in some ways more instinctively knowledgeable than Slade, the university professor, although lacking the intellectual framework and open mind.
Little by little it becomes obvious to the group that in fact he is a violent bully, with Silvie and especially her mother, Alison, dully cowed like the rabbits Bill kills and skins for the camp’s food. Yet Silvie, clever and imaginative, aware of other possibilities, is rebelling: soon she will be out of his grasp. There is the sense of approaching finality in the desperate ritual of a terrible scene in which Bill beats Silvie in the woods after coming across her swimming alone and naked: “It went on longer than usual, as if the open air invigorated him, as if he liked the setting.” The forest is depicted as a place of enchantment, desolation and betrayal.
The students, Pete, Dan and Molly, with their casual talk of inter-railing and CVs, give Silvie a glimpse into a world her father is determined she won’t see: “I had never been overseas… We didn’t have passports.” She is, however, in her element, living and breathing a terrain with which they are unfamiliar and in awe of.
Moss’s sensual writing recalls the late Helen Dunmore: Silvie, “sunburnt and blue fingered” from picking wild bilberries, is hungry for life and experience, food and friendship. She finds feminist Molly, who talks back to Bill and appears confident and carefree, particularly attractive. Molly’s outspokenness and concern, her flouting of the rules of the camp, emboldens Silvie: Moss reveals how, as Silvie’s power grows throughout the book, so Bill’s intentions become more extreme, his addiction to pre-history blurring the lines of past and present to maximum sinister effect, in a bold, spare study of internecine conflict.
Sarah Moss is in conversation with Sarah Perry at Cambridge Literary Festival on 25 November
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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis