Ghost Wall

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 08 Jan 2019

Member Reviews

Another story that was a little too long and involved for the abrupt short story type ending it was given. I usually say a story like this needs to be pared down to an anthology short story length, or lengthened to novel lenghth, but as basic as this writing was I think anthology short story length would have been a better way to go. That being said, it does get its points about sexism and misogyny across in a simple, straightforward and easy to understand manner; which is important. There is also a nod to the LGBTQ+ community.
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This book is a tight, perfectly polished piece of fiction, an excellent one-day read. From the few comments I read about it I expected a violent, almost horror genre story, but it's much more subtle than that. It touches on many issues, and underlying them all is the question of how much human nature has fundamentally changed since the Iron Age. The story is narrated by 15 year old Silvie, who is a girl of few words, carefully spoken (a survival strategy for living with an abusive father) but she is generously observant in her thoughts about people and the natural world. Looking back on it, I'm not sure if the descriptive passages were Silvie's thoughts, or those of an omniscient narrator whose touch is so light and loving toward Silvie that I barely noticed when it surfaced. It also didn't occur to me until I finished the book that the dialogue is written without quotation marks - another example of how organic and seamless the writing feels to me. 

The writing is so good. A couple of examples - first, Silvie's sardonic description of a visitor to their Iron Age encampment:

"Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine, and dry feet."

More poignantly, Silvie's thoughts, the day after her father beats her with his belt:

"My thoughts were beginning to flicker, my mind a bird against the window. It as often like that, the day after."
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Review from The Mookse and the Gripes by Dorian Stuber:

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall indicts fantasies of authenticity and tradition. These fantasies are pernicious because they confuse sacrifice with victimization. Moreover, they inflict their pain disproportionately — most of the victims are women.

Like all of Moss’s work — she has written four novels and a memoir of a year spent in Iceland — Ghost Wall is really smart. But its ideas aren’t stern, dogmatic, or bloodless. They’re expressed in deceptively simple prose and arise seamlessly from a compelling story. (I wanted to say “naturally,” but the point of the book is to critique naturalness, not as a meaningless concept but as one much open to abuse.)

That story is told by seventeen-year-old Silvie, who, together with her parents and an anthropology professor and three of his students, spends two weeks in the summer of 1991 reenacting the lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of Northumberland. Britons, her father calls them; Celts, the professor demurs, citing the current preferred terminology. In making this distinction, the professor ineffectually pushes back against Silvie’s father’s desire to imagine a purely British origin story. Silvie’s own name is short for Sulevia, a local goddess of springs and pools, or, as Silvie, quoting her father, half-reluctantly, half-defensively puts it, “A proper British native name.” As that “proper” suggests, her father’s idea of authenticity is moralizing at best, overtly racist at worst: describing the Picts’ resistance to the Romans (“the Romans are the end of what he likes”), he says “there weren’t dark faces in these parts for nigh on two millennia after that, were there?” (he’s already rejected Indian food as “Paki muck”). Her father, Silvie concludes, “wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” What he has instead is a job as a bus-driver that supports his amateur archaeology and survivalist escapades, and a wife and daughter whom he terrorizes.

The abuse is both psychological (“I did not know what my father thought I might want to do,” Silvie reflects, “but he devoted considerable attention to making sure I couldn’t do it”: an artful, even funny, observation that on a moment’s reflection isn’t funny at all) and physical. Here, for example, is what happens when the father comes across Silvie bathing naked in a stream:

You should be ashamed of yourself, I’ll not have my daughter a little whore, and only when I had covered myself and turned back to face him did he take off his Iron Age leather belt. Stand against that tree, he said, a rowan not much taller than me, the trunk against which I leant my forehead no wider than my face, and as his arm rose and swung and rose again, as the belt sang though the sunny air, I thought hard about the tree between my hands, about the cells in its leaves photosynthesizing the afternoon sun, about the berries ripening hour by hour, the impalpable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of roots below my feet and deep into the earth. It went on longer than usual, as if the open air invigorated him, as if he liked the setting. I thought about the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made, about the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end. Itching, scratching, wind and rain and sun. About the flaying, the tanning.

The passage is the more terrible for its beauty: I am particularly devastated by the irony of the belt singing through the sunny air, as if relishing its pain-making task. Is it to counter that tendency, to turn it into an ally, that Silvie begins to identify with the belt? Perhaps not, since the identification is with the animal from which the belt was made rather than the belt itself. What does it mean for Silvie to think this way? Is she asserting herself? Protecting herself? Or is that the same thing? Are her meditations on metamorphosis a way to master her victimization? What’s clear is that Silvie displaces the assault on her own skin — the scars of which she will spend the rest of the book trying to hide — by contemplating the animal’s. But reflecting on the animal’s sensations of fear and pain only returns her to her own. By the time we reach the penultimate sentence, although we know logically it must refer to the animal, grammatically the absence of a subject makes it hard to distinguish between victims. Silvie, too, is being flayed and tanned.

It is telling that Silvie moves from thinking about a tree to an animal. The characters spend most of their time gathering what food they can from the land (rabbits, fish, mussels, bilberries, burdock roots, wild thyme) which Silvie’s mother valiantly seeks to make it into something edible. The emphasis on gathering, however, elides Iron Age reality, as Silvie is well aware: “While I was glad we weren’t going to be hacking the guts out of deer in the woods with flint blades, I thought the Professor’s dodging of violence pretty thoroughly messed up the idea that our experiences that summer were going to rediscover the lifeways of pre-modern hunter-gatherers.” Or, as she more bluntly puts it, “there has to be murder done.”

Silvie fascinates because she’s at once in thrall to her father’s mindset and critical of it. She sees that to maintain life we must take it, but we might wonder about her insistence on the ubiquity of violence: “The whole of life . . . is doing harm, we live by killing.” At what point does realism about the facts of life and death (the “flaccid pink slices” of ham the students illicitly buy at the Spar, the local grocery, come from somewhere) become an excuse to justify one’s own victimhood? Like many victims of abuse, Silvie and her mother blame themselves for their abuser’s actions. Silvie’s mother says to her daughter: “If you didn’t wind him up all the time he wouldn’t do it”; Silvie tells Molly, the only female student: “People don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.”

Molly is the most skeptical member of the group. She is the first to sneak off to the Spar; later, when Silvie visits her tent, she is fascinated by the older girl’s contraband:

A sponge bag unzipped and spilling bottles of nail varnish and deodorant and face creams, a hairbrush webbed with pale hairs and a fruit salad of bobbles wound around its handle, crumpled crisp packets and sweet wrappers in a pile in the corner, a couple of battered paperback novels.

In this description of the remains a future archaeologist might face, the “fruit salad” of Molly’s hair elastics is particularly evocative. But Silvie’s perceptive eye isn’t drawn to the things as such. She cares about them because they’re Molly’s. They’re a way for Silvie to covertly express her fascination with Molly herself, especially the body that is varnished and deodorized and moisturized. In ways she can only barely acknowledge, Silvie is attracted to women. Although the novel doesn’t develop Silvie’s nascent sexuality, it subtly shows how homophobia compounds the misogyny so prevalent in it. Pete, another of the students, grins lewdly when he catches Silvie looking at Molly: “He has seen me . . . wanting to touch her hair and her feet. He knew.”

Perhaps what the man hates here — and in this he must surely represent at least Silvie’s father, if not all the novel’s male characters, or men in general — is a straightforward avowal of sameness, the way like can be drawn to like. Whereas he and the other male characters affirm difference (a different time, a different way of life, a different experience of the world), but their affirmation is false. Because what they really want to do is to make past and present the same, thereby affirming nothing more than their own will.

In the book’s most self-conscious moment, Silvie meditates on the allure — and risk — of identifying with the past:

That was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, we or our dead?

The ultimate way to know the past would be to live it, to erase the boundary between then and now. Which would be to erase the self, or, in the dominant metaphor of the novel, to make the self a ghost. The paradox is that to fully access the past we would need to no longer be ourselves. But the self that wants to know, control, and dominate cannot accept such effacement. The “logical” conclusion is that someone else — someone less powerful, someone less valuable — needs to be turned into a ghost, which is when oppression gets dressed up as sacrifice. The professor and Sylvie’s father urge the group to build a ghost wall, “a last-ditch defense” built by the Celts in their fight with the Romans: “they made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arrayed them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was their strongest magic.” Ignoring the suggestion of desperation in that description — “last-ditch” — the group stay up all night, drumming and howling at the moon. But that high fades, leading the men to go still further: they will reenact the tribes’ human sacrifices, as memorialized in the “bog people,” whose remains have been eerily preserved by the acidic water. Silvie is forced to play the part of the scapegoat.

Molly is horrified by the decision, Silvie scared. But the professor insists on his fantasy of complete immersion in the past, even if it requires hurt:

That’s why we should do this, he said, that’s what we’re interested in figuring out, the process of the killing, the momentum of the ritual.

Silvie, only a teenager, can’t think of a way to say no. Thinking back to the bruises on her mother’s arm, she remembers “the marks you get if you resist when someone’s trying to hit you,” but even her frightened acquiescence can’t save her when the reenactment gets out of control (the men tie her hands behind her back, take a knife to her face to cut “ritual” marks, and amass a pile of stones ready for a final, quite possibly murderous punishment). Only a deus ex machina can save her.


Ghost Wall is filled with lovely things. It contains vivid scenes, like Silvie’s childhood memory of falling into a bog on one of her weekly tramps with her father across the moors and being rescued by him. (The moment of course foreshadows her near-victimization in the reenactment, but it also shows the capable and loving, if not exactly tender, side of her father, without excusing him or making him sympathetic.) It is filled with expressions rooted in the Northern landscape, fitting for a book so interested in place: burdock roots are “clarted” with clay, pants are “kecks,” people are “clemmed” as much as they are hungry. And it offers beautiful metaphors, as when Silvie, on the verge of a panic attack, says, “My thoughts were beginning to flicker, my mind a bird against the window.” The beauty here is in the precision and surprise of the comparison: what could be more desperate than a bird knocking itself against something it can’t see? But what is the window? Is Silvie trying to escape herself?

But this very example allows us to ask certain questions that have consequences for our ability to understand Moss’s politics. What is the point of view here? When is this story being told? Which Silvie has the insight to describe her mind as a panicked bird? The teenager? Or the adult she becomes? In most of the book, the answer is clearly the seventeen-year-old, the one who says things like “I was only bloody right.” But then we’ll be given an elegant metaphor or a gesture towards the future, paradoxically expressed by referring to the narrative present as the past: “There was no shade, I remember everything a little flattened as if in one of those overexposed photos it used to be possible to take” (my emphasis). If it’s the adult, then we might feel more confident that abuse can be overcome, oppression escaped. But if that’s what Moss wanted, why are those hints so faint?

This uncertainty is amplified in the book’s ending, which is beautifully ambivalent. Silvie, rescued from violent male fantasies of sacrifice, spends the night at the home of a woman named Trudi Kelley, a midwife that Silvie and Molly meet at the Spar, who serves as a kind of fairy godmother to the girl. The book ends with Silvie sharing a bed with Molly, who falls asleep cradling her, promising Silvie protection it is unlikely she can give (elsewhere, Moss has made it clear that class privilege — Molly comes from an upper-middle-class Home County background — can foster other kinds of fantasies, like the belief that people can simply will themselves into a different, better life). Silvie doesn’t sleep: she lies “watching the full moon and then the dawn through the ivy-framed window of Trudi’s cottage the rest of that short summer night.” Is the window an escape hatch? Or just another barrier she will thrash against, like the bird in her metaphor?

Even for a short book, the end of Ghost Wall comes quickly, even abruptly. The first two-thirds are structured analogously to the aimlessness of summer. The sacrifice scene is a pretty surprising ratcheting up of intensity, and Silvie’s rescue even more so. If the reviews at Amazon are anything to go by, some readers have found the end implausible. But if we read Ghost Wall this way, we’re falling for the same idea of authenticity it calls out as harmful fantasy. We’d be confusing what’s “realistic” with what’s arbitrarily the case. When we say “life isn’t like that” we make it harder for it to ever be otherwise. Fantasies can incite change.

Yet Moss is evasive even in this regard. The English landscape, she seems to say, is objectively lovely. Nature, whatever that means, provides. But so does the Spar. We can find real solace in making things. But we might have more time for that making if we aren’t just trying to stay alive. The past is interesting in itself, not necessarily better, and it shouldn’t be used as a way to legitimate exclusion. That will only end in violence. We shouldn’t use the past to authenticate the present or as a measuring stick to separate who belongs in our own society from who doesn’t. Otherwise we’ll be like Silvie’s father, who likes museums, Silvie suggests, because “he likes dead things.”

Molly, by contrast, who imagines a future as a museum educator, wants “to make things be alive again.” A laudable desire, but the risk is that one fantasy simply replaces another. Vague ideas of freedom are better than oppressive domination, but they come with their own risk. Silvie knows all too well how dangerous the desire to make the past come alive is, how easily it devolves into a way to legitimate hurt, how much is at stake in “taking someone into the flickering moment between life and death and holding them there.” In this vivid, generous, and thoughtful novel, Sarah Moss asks us to consider whether Silvie, like everyone else society deems expendable, has escaped that precarious in-between state.
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This is a good, quick, savage read. Silvie accompanies her bus-driver dad and put-upon Mum on an archaeological reenactment in the woods. Schooled in Iron Age and prehistoric loving on the land, Silvie faces the reality of history through the filter of an all too savage present.
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A frustrated, working class father takes his dishwater wife and resilient daughter on an extended coordinated field trip intended to allow the campers to experience subsistence-level existence as it would have been in the north of England in the Dark Ages.

The escapist appeal of the conceit is strong enough to pull you in. The soft tyranny of a father desperate for his family to appreciate the rigor of life in the Dark Ages is well constructed. The tell-tale whiff of abuse in this family that goes beyond psychology is genuinely suspenseful. In fact, everything is well realized, yet the payoff is burdened by the political heavy-handedness embodied in the protagonist. It's unfortunate; she's a strong character led to the brink of being an unforgettable character and then things get preachy.  Tacking on a homily on 'women are people too!' reduced a decent thriller to something far less impressive.
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In Ghost Wall, a young girl participates in an immersive reenactment of the life of ancient Britons with her family. Brief, and a bit strange, this book uses its unique premise to level some pointed criticism at modern society. I don't know if I caught everything that Moss was commenting on, though the dominant theme seemed to be patriarchal culture and how, while a lot has certainly changed since ancient times, gender roles still influence life today, often at the detriment of women. Racism and xenophobia are also touched on as Moss breaks down the belief, held by the narrator's father, that Britons are the master race by juxtaposing this sentiment with his stark failings. I think this would be a great book for a bookclub because it's one that readers are sure to see differently, leading to great discussions. Fans of the The Tidal Zone may feel Ghost Wall is a departure, but they both have a strong focus on family and family relationships.
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Immersive and haunting, Ghost Wall is a chilling experience about the power of myth and history. Sarah Moss writes powerfully and precisely about violence, gender roles, mythical narrative, and classism through the tormented mind of Sylvie who, on an anthropological excursion with her bus driver father, submissive mother, and a small class of students, experiences her first sexual awakening. Moss builds a beautiful, eerie tension between the present day setting of Northumberland and the recreation of a violent mythical past, bringing the tension to a clamorous, tumultuous finish. It's a book that lives in the mind long after the cover has been closed.
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Ghost Wall is a suspenseful, literary coming-of-age novel set in rural Northumberland, England. The book tackles potent themes of feminine power, rage and resistance, toxic masculinity, and survival. Although set in the contemporary 21st century, contrasts between primitive ways and current lifestyles are reflected throughout the narrative.

Much of the suspense in this short, artfully crafted novel shimmers beneath the surface. Story is revealed through sixteen-year-old Silvie’s vivd and precocious point of view; the reader realizes that Silvie’s inner thoughts often contradict what she dares to speak aloud. 

Sarah Moss has created a cinematic jewel of fiction, sure to spark conversation for its literary beauty as well as potent themes.
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How many of us have thought our parents were too strict? In Ghost Wall, Silvie’s dad might take it to a new level.

At the beginning of the book, the reader might think he’s a bit of a jerk and a little strict. By the end, he has lost his freaking mind. No one wants to help Silvie, except her new friend Molly.

Silvie and her parents are using their vacation time to take part in an anthropology course which is learning about the ancient Britons and life during the Iron Age. For two weeks, everyone is living off of the grid. They learn about foraging, hunting and basket making. They also discuss how the ancient Britons made sacrifices and constructed ghost walls to keep out the evil spirits.

Towards the end of the trip, Sylvie’s dad and the professor build a ghost wall. They think it would be a great idea to re-enact sacrificing someone. Of course, they choose Sylvie because she does what her father tells her to do. Why didn’t anyone stop them? It’s easier to look away than stand up to someone.

I can’t say that I loved this book. It’s not easy to read about a person who abuses their family and gets away with it for so long. However, Ghost Wall is a good book and worth reading.

*I received this ebook from NetGalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are mine. Obviously.
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This was a very difficult read, because Silvie's mother and father are so disturbing.  I know that people like them do exist, and that Silvie's life isn't that unusual, but it's still disturbing to read.  Setting the events in a pre-modern technology age (phone boxes rather than cell phones) does explain more about why things unfold as they do, not just with the lack of ways to reach the "real" work but also in how we thought about and dealt with problems in families.  It also explains why the reenactment of early Briton life is so flawed.  All that said, I couldn't put this down.

eARC provided by publisher.
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Silvie narrates this story about that time her family pretended they lived in the Iron Age in the north of England. Her domineering father, a bus driver and history buff, arranged for the opportunity to tag along with an anthropology professor and a group of his students to spend two weeks re-enacting life in the Iron Age as accurately as possible. The two men engross themselves in the experience, evaluating the authenticity of every aspect, but tension builds between the lifestyle of the Iron Age and contemporary sensibilities, particularly in regards to how women are treated. I found this story surprisingly engaging, even though the dialogue was a bit difficult to follow at times. Though, this may have been intentional to give the novel more of a dream-like quality, maybe like a fever dream. But what is the dividing line between a fever dream and gaslighting?
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I enjoyed this creepy (but not terrifying) novel about a family who, at the insistence of the domineering father, participate in a reenactment of the lifestyle of ancient Brittans.  The ending is particularly satisfying.
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When I was young my father had a subscription to National Geographic Magazine and kept his copies year after year. No longer would all of them fit in the house, so older copies went into shelves in the storeroom. I'd sit for hours looking through them, mostly interested in the articles and photos about ancient history and archaeology. The iron age bog bodies have continued to fascinate me. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss opens with a scene of a young woman being prepared as a sacrifice or for an execution. The details echo those of the 16 year old Yde girl and the Windeby girl. 

Then we are introduced to the current situation in which seventeen-year-old Silvie and her parents are participating in an iron age reenactment along with a university professor and his students.

Set in Northumberland in the 1990's, the descriptions of the small camp, forest, and countryside do create a feeling of an earlier time. However, the group is not far from civilization, and Molly, one of the students, makes clandestine use of a near by convenience store. 

Moss creates the feeling of isolation and repression immediately in taut descriptions that involve more than the physical setting. Professor Slade is pretty easy-going, but Silvie's father Bill is not, and it is clear that he would like his dictatorial and controlling views to be accepted by more than his wife and daughter.

Physically and emotionally abusive, the father tries to keep a wall around his family and particularly around Silvie. If the others are aware, only Molly seems concerned. Retreating to the past is, for the students, an exercise for credit, but for Bill it carries much more weight. Silvie and her mother are only there because of Bill.

Ghost Wall is actually a novella, but it didn't feel like one because of its density--packing so much in so few pages. There are numerous themes, each handled in an understated manner that seeps into your consciousness. I was both pleased and frustrated by the conclusion which was a little rushed, and I was curious about some of the outcomes, wanting to know more.

There are walls aplenty--physical, mental, social, and metaphysical--and plenty to think about in this short book. 

NetGalley/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
General Fiction/Coming of Age. Jan. 8, 2018. Print length: 144 pages.
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So many books around these days featuring an obsessive man dragging his family into the crazy with him.   Although there have been quite a few novels with survivalist fathers, I think also of Tara Westover's Education, Maude Julien's The Only Girl in the World, both memoirs of horrible childhoods they authors have managed to overcome.  

Here we have Silvie, who along with her mother has spent her vacations following her father into increasingly harrowing re-enactments of life in Iron Age Britain.  After a truly disturbing opening passage, Silvie tells her account of the previous days, many situations which made me want to get up and drink clean water.   This is a short book, but make no mistake, it's dense with meaning, history and tension.  

My only complaint is in the presentation -- increasingly, books are coming out with few paragraph breaks and no quotation marks at all.  This may be a deliberate meta construct for this book, but it takes a bit of getting used to.
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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in late November.

There are immediate similarities to Hanna Who Fell from the Sky, but this book is more in the moment, stream of consciousness, and aware. Silvie lives in a slightly primitive campground with her parents among intellectuals, who make repeated reference to the Iron Age, the lay of the land during that timeframe, and activities of their civilization. Her mother's mindset is, however, more askance and frustrated about her father’s need to play a hyper-masculine role and emphasize authenticity among the other academics on site. Combined, they create a ghost wall of accumulated animal bones, and Silvie gradually reveals the emotional seams of her family life before her father asks her a favor in the name of authenticity….
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Even though this was a quick read, the story itself has long lasted after I have finished it.   This was such a powerful novel-one that made me feel uncomfortable at times; while at other times I was anxious.  This was not a light read by any means, it has depth to it.
 I believe that the setting and the atmosphere made this novel.  Even though the characters were cleverly crafted, the observations and hidden meaning in this one won me over. I love that there was folklore entwined in this with also using an exploration of female strength.

This is the third book by Sarah Moss that I've read and won't be my last.  I absolutely adore her writing/narration style.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Granta in exchange for an honest review.
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An urgent novella full of foreboding, paranoia, and latent danger. To me, it combined the cryptic menace of Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream with the menacing pastoral idyll of Alan Garner's The Owl Service. Ancient history and beliefs haunt the book; not so much to show nothing has changed so much as to bring to light current social conditions, groupthink, patriarchy, intimate & societal violence, gender, class, and nativism. All this in so few pages.

I'm in awe of Moss' writing and her ability to build tension and atmosphere in such a compact structure. The sense of being trapped is total. The Iron Age reenactment camp functions as an awful funhouse mirror for the main character and the culmination of the tension in an event left me feeling sick because of the "what if" nature of it. My only complaint is the ending felt rushed, robbing the book of some of its power. But can't wait to read more by Sarah Moss.
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A spare, harrowing look at nationalism, abuse, and toxic masculinity, told in Sarah Moss's subtle and exquisite prose.
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For two weeks, Silvie and her mother join her father on an anthropology course of his lifelong obsession, ancient Britons and their way of life. Foraging food, hunting, fishing and extreme conditions are hard on the anthropology students, but for Silvie, this is something she know how to do. She was raised on stories of early man, has seen rare artifacts and tools. She's also listened endlessly as her father talks time and again of antcient rituals and beliefs--particularly the sacrifices to the bog. 

Meeting and interacting with the students, Silvie sees that there is a world beyond her father's cruelty. She sees and hears about traveling and free will. Silvie develops a friendship with Molly who rails against Silvie's fathers ideals of how women should behave.

The writing is...otherworldly. Long sentences that are full of strange twists of language and an almost dreamlike state. This felt like...watching The Village and Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time. I knew something was going to happen, but I couldn't let my eyes leave the page. Sarah Moss is not of this world. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this book.
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This one seemed unfinished, like a first draft.  A family goes back to an age of simpler living.  Things get weird but the structure is off putting and the plot drags.  I wish it had been told differently and had more character development.
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