audiobook version reviewed: Narrator: Christine Hewett
Ghost Wall is the story of Silvie and the two weeks in which her father, an amateur ancient historian, drags her and her mother into the woods of north England to live as ancient Britons. They join a group of anthropology students who are also there to reenact living the lives of simpler times and try to understand how the “bog bodies” came to be so. The group forages for food, hunts and fishes, all using Bronze Age tools. When they erect a “ghost wall”, the spiritual barrier made of stakes topped with ancestral skulls intended to ward off enemies, the group taps into a deep-seated, primal connection to their distant ancestors as well as a desire to deeply understand their motivations. What follows is a deeply unsettling narrative of abuse and sacrifice.
This slim novel (or rather, in my case, short audiobook) highlights how taut prose can tell just as good a story as any giant epic doorstopper of a novel any day. This was an excellent read. Told from the point of view of Sylvie, the young woman whose father, Bill, is the amateur historian, we learn fragments of life about ancient Britons based on what she has learned in turn from her father. More importantly, we learn that her father is abusive and has convinced her that people only hit the things they care about. Sylvie has a quick wit and salty attitude, which we only see in her internal dialogue; she never really says what she’s thinking for fear of what her father will do to her if she does. However, once they join up with the students and professor of the anthropology group, she begins to envision a different life for herself which includes going to university, having her own money, making her own decisions, living away from home and even away from England. She is afraid, however, to voice her interests since she has learned they will probably be thwarted.
The anthropology students are an interesting group, ranging from barely engaged in the reenactment to ready to go back in time and embrace prehistoric life. Jim Slade, The Prof, as their instructor is called, leads the group overall, though Sylvie’s dad is the unacknowledged ruler since everyone tip toes around him. The students - Dan, Pete, and Molly - are by turns helpful and dismissive, indifferent and supportive. Molly in particular shines here and is a great example of a strong woman and role model.
Sylvie’s father uses his love of history as a justification to abuse his family as well as to try to go back to some ephemeral time of British purity. Anyone who actually knows history knows there is no such thing for really any culture, let alone British culture. He names his daughter after a goddess - Sulevia - claiming she is a British goddess when in reality she is Roman in origin. You can’t “take back” a country when it was never pure or yours to begin with. There is a lot to unpack here with regard to cultural or racial purity, cultural and historical ignorance, and the ways in which humans have used history and a connection to past events, imperfectly understood, to justify and rationalize current cruelty and brutality.
I think this book makes a terrific argument for why we need to study and understand history. Yes, there is the old wheeze about people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. More than that, though, is the message that those who imperfectly understand history (not that there is really a perfect way to understand it) can twist it to do awful things on both large and small scales. Bill uses history to justify abusing his wife and daughter; politicians use it as a way to whip up their base with the idea of “making XXX country great again” - ahem - the implication being that it wasn’t just fine the way it was before, with all the people from all different places living there. Racism.
It also touches on the vital issue of domestic abuse, shame, and fear associated with it. Sylvie is ashamed and afraid because her dad beats her with his belt. Her mother is useless in protecting her, and while I tend not to understand that mentality - I think I’d kill anyone who hurt my daughter - I am also not a long-time victim of abuse. I don’t know how it must wear you down and make you think it is normal. That is important to try to understand.
In short, I loved this book. It was deceptively nuanced and complex. Highly recommended.
© Kristen McQuinn