on ghost wall

Eerie and atmospheric, Ghost Wall brings to the surface a teenager’s repressed resentment toward her patriarchal father.

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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.

16 thoughts on “on ghost wall

    1. I listened to the audio version, and I wish I’d read a print copy. The narration didn’t work that well for me (too dry/composed), but I found the passages I typed down to be really moving.

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      1. There does seem to be some kind of difference, with most books, in the experience of an audiobook vs reading it – often if my colleagues and I disagree about the merits of something, it turns out that one of us read it and one of us listened! There should be more research into this.

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  1. I think novellas are one of the hardest forms to write in, but when they’re done well, they are AMAZING. When they’re done poorly, the feel more like bloated, aimless short stories. I’m not sure if I would like this book. . .dads are complicated. My dad was 23 when I was born. I have a brother 2 years older. Looking back, he was a kid with kids. Now that he has grandkids, he’s changed — he actually shares his snacks and pays attention now.

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    1. Ah, that’s interesting you bring that point up – a friend on GR said that this felt like a bloated short story to them. I had the opposite problem with it, in that I felt there was a bit too much going on (aimless).

      Glad your dad eventually matured with the birth of his grandkids – better to build a healthy relationship later in life than never at all, which happens far too often.

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  2. Interesting! I’ve only read Tidal Zone, which I found gripping and insightful (despite being a story which sounds like it will be a quiet read) and I’m so curious about this author in general (either the library has catalogued more than one author with this name or she has written a remarkably diverse collection, even at this stage of her career).

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    1. I hadn’t known about her other works, but I just looked her up — and wow! She’s incredibly prolific, having released a new novel almost every year since 2014. I’ll be sure to check out Tidal Zone sometime as I enjoyed her style of writing even if the audio felt off.

  3. I received this for my birthday. I actually started it last night so to see your review here only heightened my interest in this one, Michael. thanks once more another insightful review.

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  4. This book seems really interesting and it’s definitely a novel that I should keep on my radar. I’m especially intrigued by the father-daughter relationship because familial relationships are so difficult and complex that there is a lot of potential to express and discuss those complicated feelings. Thank you very much for sharing. c:

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    1. It’s definitely a quick but impactful read. I had some issues with the pacing, but I thought the author did a good job of capturing the mixture of love/hate the protagonist had for her abusive dad. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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