Many of us are attracted to the ancient past, but some take it further than others.

In Sarah Moss’ short yet haunting novel “Ghost Wall,” 17-year-old Silvie’s north English family spends the summer in the Northumberland woods, trying to live like their Briton ancestors before the Roman invasion. They eat only what they can gather, and wear soft moccasins and scratchy tunics. Yet Silvie’s domineering father becomes furious when she bathes naked in a stream, putting her up against a tree and beating her with his plaited leather belt.

Victorian hypocrisy isn’t the only anachronism that creeps into the Iron Age re-enactment. The father makes allowances for toothbrushes, tampons and pajamas, but otherwise forces his family to live as authentically ancient as possible. A dour bus driver, he wants to spend his two weeks off doing the only thing that fascinates him. He’s usually out in the forest with an “experimental archaeology” professor, who brought along a few of his students so that they “have a flavour of Iron Age life.” One, a posh southerner named Molly, not only befriends Silvie but saves her from what quickly becomes a pagan nightmare heading toward “Heart of Darkness” proportions — the ghost wall of the title refers to the ancient Briton practice of placing ancestors’ skulls on a palisade.

Silvie is short for Sulevia, a Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, and it’s around the peat bogs that Moss’ story swirls. Once Silvie was stuck in one, and remembers how “the bog seals around you,” that it “will fill the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from the inside out.” The terror arising through such a passage is one of several winks that something is very wrong here, in this ostensibly wholesome re-enactment.

And what Molly finds to be wrong, at first, is the patriarchal entitlement Silvie’s father assumes. Molly makes gender-role-threatening comments, questioning why Silvie’s mother must always wash and cook, and tells Silvie “it’s not OK for someone to hit you.”

Yes, “Ghost Wall” has a feminist bent, but it never sinks into the bog of misandry. Silvie’s father is a chauvinist beast, true, and when he goes too far he’ll get what he deserves, but Moss remains balanced, aiming to right a wrong through her tale, not make another one through low blows. “Men were also people,” Silvie believes.

Peppered with such exquisite lines as, “Exhaled breaths hang like spirits above each person’s head, slowly dissolving in the air,” Moss’ myth-like “Ghost Wall” isn’t merely a timely topical novel, but rather a timeless work of art.

 

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University.

Ghost Wall
By: Sarah Moss.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 132 pages, $22.