BREACH­ING BRI­TAIN’S GHOST WALLS

The New European - - Eurofile -

We’ve heard a great deal about ‘con­trol’ over the last two or three years. By leav­ing the EU we’re ap­par­ently tak­ing back con­trol of our laws and our bor­ders, even though no­body can ever tell you be­yond vac­u­ous slo­ga­neer­ing what we’ve ac­tu­ally, specif­i­cally lost, how we lost it or when it went miss­ing.

The ref­er­en­dum it­self spi­ralled out of a wres­tle for con­trol of the right wing in Bri­tish pol­i­tics, an ex­er­cise that back­fired so spec­tac­u­larly its ex­pand­ing con­cen­tric cir­cles em­a­nat­ing from within the Con­ser­va­tive Party spread to the na­tion and the rest of the con­ti­nent be­yond, lead­ing to a sit­u­a­tion in which no­body seems to be gen­uinely in con­trol of any­thing.

Con­trol and the con­stant strug­gle to re­tain it thrum with sonorous con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance through Ghost Wall, the new novel from Sarah Moss pub­lished ear­lier this month by Granta; con­trol of his­tory, con­trol of fam­ily, con­trol of women, con­trol of a nar­ra­tive. Dark and fre­quently un­set­tling, Ghost Wall draws to­gether an­cient civil­i­sa­tions, present day is­sues, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and the wil­ful mis­use of his­tory to val­i­date an egre­giously false na­tional nar­ra­tive.

It’s the early 1990s, a hot sum­mer, and we’re in a recre­ated Iron Age en­camp­ment in the Northum­brian coun­try­side where a group of peo­ple are at­tempt­ing to live as our an­ces­tors did. Our nar­ra­tor is Sil­vie, a 17-year-old girl who, like her mother, is in thrall to her vi­o­lently con­trol­ling fa­ther Bill.

As far as Bill is con­cerned this is a fam­ily hol­i­day while for the other in­hab­i­tants of the recre­ated ham­let, Pro­fes­sor Slade and three teenage stu­dents, this is an ex­er­cise in ‘ex­pe­ri­en­tial ar­chae­ol­ogy’. The pro­fes­sor is a lit­tle lais­sez-faire about au­then­tic­ity, wear­ing sports socks be­neath the moc­casins the group dons as part of their Iron Age cloth­ing to avoid blis­ters and al­low­ing the stu­dents to sleep in modern tents rather than join­ing the fam­ily in the as­ceti­cally ac­cu­rate Iron Age hut.

Bill is a bus driver and au­to­di­dact ob­sessed with an­cient Bri­tain. Bog bod­ies fas­ci­nate him in par­tic­u­lar and he spends evenings at home por­ing over books con­tain­ing pic­tures of per­fectly pre­served, leath­ery brown corpses, tan­ta­lised by their usu­ally vi­o­lent deaths. His fix­a­tion with the an­cient Bri­tons al­lows Bill to with­draw into a warped ver­sion of his­tory in which the Bri­tish fought off for­eign in­vaders for cen­tury after cen­tury, pre­serv­ing a spe­cific cul­ture and racial pu­rity that makes us sep­a­rate from and su­pe­rior to the rest of Europe and the world.

We’ve all met a ver­sion of Bill. Th­ese days he’ll be rolling his eyes at the Pol­ski Sk­lep in the high street. There’s a re­mem­brance poppy on his lapel all year round. He’ll write to his lo­cal pa­per about the EU su­per­state that might well be tak­ing over the con­ti­nent but it’s not tak­ing over our coun­try. He has a shelf of books about the Sec­ond World War he picks up cheap in The Works when he’s in town, the ones with the big red price stick­ers on the front that are so hard to peel off. He has ‘le­git­i­mate con­cerns’ about im­mi­gra­tion, but he’ll laugh and joke with the Ro­ma­ni­ans at work. His sense of pa­tri­o­tism is less about pride and more about su­pe­ri­or­ity.

Sarah Moss’s Bill is a much darker prospect, be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing fig­ure as the book pro­gresses. His quest for au­then­tic­ity on the trip is ab­so­lute be­cause for him this is an ex­er­cise in with­draw­ing from the in­creas­ing re­al­ity of a global, for­ward­look­ing mul­ti­cul­tural Bri­tain, as the Ber­lin Wall comes down and Europe is sud­denly a united en­tity, into a ver­sion of the na­tion he can un­der­stand and in which he can feel safe, a ver­sion with­out for­eign­ers where, once the Bri­tons had ap­par­ently driven off the Ro­mans, “there weren’t dark faces in th­ese parts for nigh on two mil­len­nia, were there?”

Sil­vie, through whom we ex­pe­ri­ence the taut, claus­tro­pho­bic events of this ex­tra­or­di­nary book, has feel­ings to­wards her fa­ther that are not so much mixed as per­pet­u­ally buf­feted. Through­out her life he has been her moral yard­stick, his tight con­trol of ev­ery as­pect of her life en­sur­ing that his ap­proval is the only creed by which she can live.

She de­fends Bill when the stu­dents, and her near­est con­tem­po­rary Molly in par­tic­u­lar, ques­tion his at­ti­tudes, be­liefs and even­tu­ally his phys­i­cal abuse. Sil­vie

In its ex­plo­ration of an in­su­lar view of Bri­tain, a new novel of­fers plenty of pow­er­ful Brexit al­le­gories. But they are art­fully in­tro­duced, rather than crow­barred in, says CHAR­LIE

CON­NELLY

slips eas­ily into phrases that have clearly come from her fa­ther, used like stick­ing plas­ters over her doubts and fears al­most as a form of re­as­sur­ance.

Bill is, un­sur­pris­ingly, a misog­y­nist, an­other as­pect of his char­ac­ter he moulds to his twisted ver­sion of Bri­tish his­tory. The pro­fes­sor has al­lowed con­tem­po­rary items into the camp in­clud­ing san­i­tary sup­plies for the women, much to Bill’s undis­guised dis­gust.

“Women didn’t go around bleed­ing all over the place,” he asserts of Iron Age Bri­tain, where women ap­par­ently “man­aged well enough”.

It’s a level of wil­ful ig­no­rance that’s been care­fully nur­tured in or­der to create for Bill a safe space within a fic­tional his­tory cel­e­brat­ing Bri­tish ex­cep­tion­al­ism that pre­dates even the vaguest no­tion of Bri­tain as a united en­tity. When the pro­fes­sor gen­tly points out that Hadrian’s Wall isn’t, as Bill has it, a sym­bol of Bri­tish re­sis­tance to for­eign in­va­sion and that the is­lands of Bri­tain and Ire­land were, in an­cient times, pop­u­lated by a range of tribes, many of them Celtic, Bill bri­dles into a sim­mer­ing re­sent­ment picked up by

Sil­vie whose radar is, out of ne­ces­sity, fine-tuned to her fa­ther’s moods.

“He wanted his own an­ces­try, wanted a lin­eage, a claim on some­thing,” she ob­serves. “Not peo­ple from Ire­land or Rome or Ger­ma­nia or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mush­rooms in the night.”

It’s the kind of fear and in­se­cure sense of na­tional iden­tity that has been ex­pertly mar­shalled by el­e­ments of the press over many years and was ex­ploited bril­liantly by the Leave cam­paign to give us Brexit. This might be a re­con­struc­tion of an Iron Age en­camp­ment close to the Northum­ber­land coast at a point early in the 1990s but it’s also a won­der­fully worked hot­house por­tray­ing Bri­tain then, now and at any time when Bri­tish iden­tity and na­tional self-con­fi­dence have been in a state of flux.

There are other con­flicts too: Molly is a solidly mid­dle-class south­erner, priv­i­leged and con­fi­dent, and while she and Sil­vie bond and their re­la­tion­ship

de­vel­ops in a way that makes the cli­max of the book shock­ingly tense, their dif­fer­ences are pro­nounced. When Sil­vie tries to tell Molly where she’s from, not only can Molly not point to Burn­ley or Rochdale on a map, she’s never even heard of them.

The gen­der di­vide be­comes grad­u­ally more pro­nounced as the story de­vel­ops, with the gruffly sim­mer­ing na­tion­al­ist and the book­ishly lib­eral pro­fes­sor grow­ing closer in a re­la­tion­ship that could al­most come from an adult ver­sion of Lord of the Flies, while Sil­vie, her mother Ali­son and Molly de­velop an al­most un­spo­ken bond as the mother and daugh­ter’s welts and bruises from Bill’s beat­ings be­come harder to hide.

A scene in which Bill thrashes Sil­vie against a rowan tree after find­ing her bathing naked in a stream is par­tic­u­larly har­row­ing; his re­mov­ing of his Iron Age belt from his tu­nic lend­ing an ex­tra men­ac­ing dis­ori­en­ta­tion to the scene that’s some­how more dis­turb­ing than if he was pulling a belt through the loops of his work trousers.

The ghost wall of the ti­tle de­rives from what Bill and the pro­fes­sor have iden­ti­fied as the last-ditch at­tempt of the an­cient Bri­tons to ward off the Ro­man in­va­sion. The le­gions were too wellor­gan­ised and their weaponry too ad­vanced for the is­lan­ders so they took to build­ing fences of stakes on which the skulls of their an­ces­tors were placed, the idea be­ing that the dead would rise up and their spir­its re­pel the in­vad­ing army.

The two men be­come fix­ated upon build­ing one of their own but, there be­ing a no­table ab­sence of an­ces­tral skulls in the vicin­ity of the camp, they are forced to use those of rab­bits the group has been catch­ing for food and cow and sheep skulls sourced from a lo­cal butcher in­stead, a pa­thetic shadow of the orig­i­nal and a fee­ble at­tempt at recre­at­ing a re­sis­tance in­tended to ce­ment a re­as­sur­ing na­tional nar­ra­tive.

There are pos­si­ble Brexit al­le­gories ev­ery­where you look, from the iso­la­tion of the group – the rest of the world seems im­pos­si­bly far away, from the dis­tant lights of a town at night to the long,

gen­tly slop­ing Northum­ber­land beaches that keep the sea at an im­mense dis­tance – to the open­ing scene de­scrib­ing the imag­ined rit­ual killing of an Iron Age girl, the sac­ri­fic­ing of the young and their fu­tures in the name of fear­ful inse­cu­rity.

Such is Moss’ skill as a sto­ry­teller, how­ever, that such con­tem­po­rary nu­ances are never shoe­horned: this is a beau­ti­fully-writ­ten novel that builds ten­sion, sus­pense and un­easi­ness in equal mea­sure. You can al­most smell the sun-baked heather, see bil­berry juice stains un­der your fin­ger­nails and feel the prickly itch of sun­burn as the story moves to­wards its breath­tak­ing cli­max.

Sil­vie – it’s short for Sule­via, a god­dess of springs and pools, a name be­stowed be­cause “he wanted me to have a na­tive Bri­tish name” even though Sule­via was wor­shipped as far south as Rome and is, as the stu­dents point out, a Latin ap­pel­la­tion – is a spell­bind­ing char­ac­ter, tee­ter­ing on the cusp of adult­hood and com­ing to terms with a fierce streak of in­de­pen­dence that Bill knows he can­not con­trol but isn’t go­ing to stop try­ing.

“Pri­vacy’s a fancy modern idea, ex­actly what we’re get­ting away from,” he an­nounces to the camp, “every­one try­ing to hide away and do what they want.”

“I wanted him to know I still had a mind and a voice,” Sil­vie says after an­swer­ing her fa­ther back, even though it brings the usual phys­i­cal re­buke.

Ghost Wall is the lat­est in a string of high-qual­ity con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish fic­tion that im­merses it­self in the land­scape to ex­am­ine the state of the na­tion, tak­ing its place among ti­tles such as Fiona Melrose’s Mid­win­ter, Daisy John­son’s short story col­lec­tion Fen and El­met by Fiona Mo­z­ley. It’s Moss’s sixth novel in a ca­reer that has so far been in­ex­pli­ca­bly de­void of at­ten­tion from the Man Booker and Women’s Prize For Fic­tion judges and is ar­guably her finest yet. Sil­vie is a char­ac­ter drawn so vividly and with such depth in what is a short novel that she’ll stay with you long after you close the book. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is pub­lished in hard­back by Granta, priced £12.99

Photo: Loop Im­ages/ UIG via Getty Im­ages)

BAR­RIER: Hadrian’s Wall at Wall­town Crags in Northum­ber­land

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