Eerie and atmospheric, Ghost Wall brings to the surface a teenager’s repressed resentment toward her patriarchal father.
The novella follows seventeen-year-old Silvie as she and her conservative parents attend a university-funded campsite in northern England, alongside the students and professor of an experiential anthropology course, where the group pretends to live as Iron Age Britons for two weeks. Silvie’s mother works as a cashier, her father as a bus driver, but the latter’s well-known expertise in the region’s lay of the land earns the family frequent invites from researchers on summer trips. Nearing the cusp of adulthood, Silvie longs for independence from her controlling dad and wishes to spend her vacation elsewhere.
The soft-spoken teen’s problems multiply when her already-abusive father begins to take too seriously the camp’s Iron Age playacting. Desperate to prove his dominance and enforce rigid gender roles, he beats Silvie and her mother in private, launches into misogynist tirades before all the camp, and raves about a mythic time when the country was populated only by Britons adhering to an agrarian, all-natural lifestyle. The other men of the camp are oblivious or complicit.
As the story lurches to a terrifying ending, Silvie struggles not only with placating her father but also reigning in her desire for Molly, the course’s sole female member. Silvie, as the novel’s inexperienced narrator, lacks the vocabulary or self-knowledge to ever name her attraction toward Molly, whom the teen admires as much for her beauty and wealth as her boldness and intelligence. The pair’s frequent conversations about sexism, class, violence, and nationality comprise much of the short book’s social commentary.
The novel convincingly renders the interiority of a young working-class woman prone to disassociation and denial. Incredibly passive, Silvie glosses over the pain of so much of what she recounts, and she darts between finding her father revolting and feeling like she must defend him from affluent university students’ charges of racism, misogyny, and naiveté. Her ambivalence is agonizingly realistic, as is her struggle to suppress her feelings for Molly.
Full of plain but moving descriptions of nature, the novel takes on a lot of topics in a short amount of space, and it moves too quickly to deliver as fully as it might have. The absorbing style of narration and compelling storyline, though, make Ghost Wall more than worth checking out ahead of the announcement of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.