Ghost WalleBook - 2019
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The 90s in Britain were, as the kids say, a mood. Boppy, melodic Britpop overtook dissonant grunge on the airwaves, things were fairly psychedelic, glitter was just coming back (but was still unpopular enough to be, weirdly, punk rock). Almost no one had cell phones yet, which meant extremely creepy things could happen without being documented.
Against this backdrop, teenage Sylvie is dragged to an Iron Age re-enactment retreat by her father. He’s an intelligent, blue-collar guy with a passion for purist versions of British history, and a survivalist streak. He harbours disdain for anyone who taints the purity of British heritage, or is unable to survive in the manner of ancient British forebears. If you’re thinking he sounds like a nasty piece of work, you would be correct. Only the dry, sarcastic spark of Sylvie’s voice makes the work of surviving her father bearable for the reader.
It’s the survivalist streak that endears Sylvie’s father to a professor of British history, who has decided to host an Iron Age reenactment retreat for his students. Sylvie’s father is meant to teach the small group all the survivalist skills they need. But, in so doing, he enforces an iron rule over Sylvie and her mother using the psychological terror they’ve both grown numb to in his home.
Meanwhile, Sylvie’s father bonds with the professor and the boys in the class over a project the women only see glimpses of. The men boil the flesh off animal skulls to construct something called a ghost wall, and enact his vision of ancient rites by firelight. They mourn the fact that they have no human skulls to use, as would be authentic. The men grow obsessed with sacrificial rituals that left near-perfectly preserved bog people bound and drowned in the peat.
As the book winds toward its conclusion, author Sarah Moss paints a concise, terrifying picture of the psychological effects of abuse into a scant 132 pages. Written in a compact, almost poetic voice, Moss expertly torques the tension into a stunning one-night read that will haunt readers long after they’ve closed the book.
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