Book review: ‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss

(no spoilers)

‘Ghost Wall’ is a highly acclaimed, multiple prize-winning novel that’s been described as a ‘short, sharp shock that closes around you like a vice as you read it’. It’s a story about a modern family reliving the Iron Age; about family, about abusive situations, about friendship. But for me, it fell far short of the dazzling, ‘burnished gem’ of a book that I’d been promised. 

It’s an intimidating thing to stick your head above the parapet sometimes and admit that you don’t particularly like a book that everyone is raving about. Disclaimer: This is the first of Sarah Moss’s novels I have read, and I’ve heard that her other books are very good. I also don’t want to be that reviewer who shits on other writers’ work, because that’s not what this is. I’m genuinely – just a little confused. 

This book was alright. It just wasn’t great. I’m writing this 2 days after reading it and I’ve already forgotten most of the ‘plot’ points, seeing as it just trickled along at a snail’s pace. Now, I am a sucker for a good character arc – you don’t have to give me much in the way of plot at all as long as you’ve got a nice, juicy, fat character to cling onto, full of ideas and dreams and imperfections. 

‘Ghost Wall’ follows a young girl as she is dragged along to a historical re-enactment of the Iron Age by her father – a man who is obsessed with control and harkens back to the ‘good old days’ when women took care of the home, and men like him got to go off and kill things. Bill is full of contradictions in the way he likes things, i.e. no periods because women would have been pregnant constantly from the moment they came of age, and but also: “no talking to the boys”. He’s generally just a misogynist nightmare. We follow Silvie as she interacts with other children for the first time, and experiences different viewpoints to that of her father. 

I can think of another book I read last year which takes this same environment (of sorts) and really delivers on the descriptive element of the protagonist’s surroundings, and incorporates that effortlessly into the plot which really builds over time. It’s called ‘My absolute darling’ by Gabriel Tallent and holy moly, that book has stayed with me for a while. It’s a good lot thicker than ‘Ghost Wall’, and is definitely guilty of gratuitous descriptions of the environment which slow down the pace of the book (which is otherwise fairly harrowing) – but the characters interact with the environment in an active way, rather than passively observing.

If you’re going to go on descriptive tangents, then I feel strongly that the character should at least be in it, properly – rather than walking along and observing details (as she does for most of the book while picking food to eat). You could argue that she interacts positively as she collects fruit, but the nature never really affects her in any way, she is never injured or thwarted by it – it is only observed. Perhaps that is because Moss was trying to show that the danger to Silvie is from the humans (in this scenario), rather than the environment. But, it doesn’t make for good reading.

The style of the writing is also a structure that I’m not a fan of – more lyrical, for sure, but I find it really jarring when there aren’t obvious and age-old formatting cues for dialogue, and paragraphs etc. One of the most difficult sets of sentences to get through was:

“Come on, she said, come and talk. Mum needs these, I said, Dad said. Yes, well, she said, I say. Come on. Tell me what they said.”

I’m not saying that this particular style IS bad writing in itself (and experiencing different styles as often as you can is good for stimulation) but I just found this reeeaaaallly affected my ability to read fluently and without re-reading sentences multiple times.

There were some fabulous lines which I noted down for their sheer brilliance in terms of delivering a visual smack, such as “picking them out of my palm with my lips, kissing my own hand” and “my mind a bird against the window”. Examples like these are the little jewels that got me through, plodding towards what I was promised would be a ‘shattering conclusion’, but just fell flat.

I’m prepared to admit that I’m wrong, seeing as, you know, this book won the Booker’s Prize for Fiction and she’s published 5 novels and a memoir which is – lets see – 6 books more than me. But this isn’t a book I wouldn’t particularly recommend, and it is one that I found it quite a slog to get through (an achievement, I think you can agree, for a book that is only 149 pages long). I guess the main word I would use to describe this book was: boring. I spent a lot of time waiting for things to happen. 


Please, those who loved it, tell me in the comments what you thought! Did I miss something? Which elements did you like and dislike?

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