Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
I read Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss in one sitting. It's only 132 pages so the length wasn't a hurdle. It was so well-written it would have been tough to put it down had it been three times that. Its spareness is part of its beauty. She hews close to the bone of this story, building gradually and resolutely the excruciating tension of what you know is coming, but what you hope is not. Too often I found myself closing the book on my finger and imagining ways out, the means of escape, the chance for Silvie to say no. Yet the story presses on inexorably, without relief.
Seventeen-year-old Silvie has been raised by a commanding father who is obsessed with the Iron Age—what tools they used, how they lived, what their rituals were. He marshals his wife and daughter and joins a class of students and their teacher on an Experiential Anthropology expedition, spending two weeks in the woods in the north of England to mimic the lives of people in the Iron Age—foraging, wearing tunics of course fabric, killing rabbits to make stew, sleeping on makeshift beds of straw, bathing in the frigid, muddy stream.
After more than a week together, Silvie's father, Bill, and the professor, Jim Slade, decide to mimic an Iron Age ritual and build a Ghost Wall, a rude barricade of stakes topped with the skulls of the dead rabbits, intended to ward off enemy invaders. They find themselves moved by the rites—the ceremony, the drums, the chanting—and decide to enact another ritual: the sacrifice to the bog.
The tight cord of unrelieved tension in this novel comes from watching the scaffolding of Silvie's family (built and enforced by Bill) become Silvie's snare. Everyone attending the Iron Age reenactment takes part in what becomes the ritualized occupation of Silvie's body and will. The seizure and sacrifice of Silvie is sacramental, complete with drumming, chanting, and liturgy. It's acceptance as a sacred part of the culture—not something secret and shameful and wrong—is what is so hard to read and what feels so true. It does not feel like an Iron Age reenactment to me. It feels like a description of today's ritual sexual abuse of women in our society, in which we all choose what role to play—seducer, predator, sidekick, voyeur, helpmate, or bystander. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I wanted to read the book aloud on a national public address system. I wanted Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein (from the grave no less), Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, Jim Jordon, Bill Clinton, Roy Moore, R. Kelly, Bill O'Reilly, Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Jerry Falwell, Jr., Anthony Weiner, Dennis Hastert be forced to read it aloud over a national public address system until their throats bled, followed by the rest of them—all these enactors of our national ritual—until the end of time or the end of the sacrifice of women, whichever comes first.
The opening, where a woman is being led to the bog to be sacrificed, is so ceremonial and holy that it is nearly impossible to read. It should be read again after you've finished the book because that’s where the greatest meaning emerges. Here it is, in full:
They bring her out. Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light. The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet. There will be more stones, before the end.
She stumbles. They hold her up. No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming. From deep inside her body, from the cord in her spine and the wide blood-ways under her ribs, from the emptiness of her womb and the rising of her chest, she shakes. A body in fear. They lead the fearful body over the turf and along the track, her bare feet numb to most of the pain of rock and sharp rushes. Chanting rises, the drums sound slow, unsyncopated with the last panic of her heart. Others follow, wrapped against the cold, dark figures processing into the dusk.
On arrival, they strip her. It is easy; they have put her into a loose tunic. Against the low red light of the winter sunset, her body is white as chalk, solid against the wisps of fog and the tracery of reed. She tries to cover herself with her hands, and is not allowed. One holds her while the other binds her. Her breathing is accelerating, its condensation settling on her face. Exhaled breaths hang like spirits above each person's head, slowly dissolving into the air. The men turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learnt to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn't look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.
She is whimpering, keening. The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.
There are no surprises.
They place another rope around her neck, hold the knife up to the setting sun as it edges behind the rocks. What is necessary is on hand, the sharpened willow withies, the pile of stones, the small blades and the large. The stick for twisting the rope.
Not yet. There is an art to holding her in the place she is entering now, on the edge of the water-earth, in the time and space between life and death, too late to return to the living and not time, not yet, not for a while, to be quite dead.
Ghost Wall is a story. It's an accusation. It's journalistic in its unflinching truth-telling about how imbedded the abuse of women is in our culture and how we participate in its continuation, so much so that it has become, in the most gruesome way, a national sacrament. It's only 132 pages. Worth the read. Worth being disturbed.
There are no surprises.
You can order Ghost Wall from your local bookstore. Or you can order it here:
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >