51uQxBrCmlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Like many people, I was hugely impressed by Sarah Moss’ previous novel “The Tidal Zone” for the way its story meaningfully drew the past into the pressing concerns of its characters in the present. She uses a similar technique in her new novel “Ghost Wall” but in a much more compressed form that combines a tense story with a strong statement about issues in modern Britain. Teenage Silvie is taken on a unique archaeological trip in Northern England by her parents along with a few students and a professor. Rather than searching for artefacts they seek to recreate the feeling of living in Iron Age Britain as closely as possible. This means wearing nothing but burlap sacks, foraging for what food they can in the forest and living in primitive shelters. It also includes antiquated rituals like building a wall out of skulls and other unsavoury acts which grow increasingly alarming and bizarre. The values that Silvie’s father holds are skewed towards an outdated ideal of masculinity and gender dynamics which Silvie gradually comes to question. For such a short novel, this book builds up to a thrilling and memorable conclusion.

Since the vote for Brexit there’s been a lot of discussion about what Britain means as a country and a concept. Silvie’s father is an extreme example of someone searching for an ideal form of citizenship which retains a cultural purity without any outside or foreign influences. He’s angry about “Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think” and longs to return to some pre-Roman Celtic tribe: “He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Of course, such reactionary desire to inhabit some mythically primitive form of being British is exactly what stirs fear, xenophobia and isolationist thinking. Sarah Moss dramatically and poignantly shows how such inclinations are both spurious and absurd.

At the centre of the story is Silvie who was named after an ancient British goddess Sulevia. She develops a friendship (and attraction?) to student Molly who is from Southern England. She is headstrong, dismissive of the group’s blatant machoism and hilariously bunks off from gathering edible weeds and berries to buy prepacked food from the local convenient store. Molly has grown up with very different values from Silvie who feels that it’s natural that “Children’s bodies were not their own, we were all used to uncles who liked to cop a feel given half a chance and mums who showed love in smacked legs.” But Silvie also refuses to be seen as a rural working class stereotype and is wary of patronizing views about their lifestyle. It’s a tense dynamic and it raises a lot of challenging questions for the reader about the difference between cultural sensitivity and doing what’s ethically right. These questions are just as haunting as the image of Bog People performing a sacrifice in the Iron Age which prefaces this short, razor-sharp novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Moss

When you experience a personal tragedy it fills your whole world. You’re aware and empathize with the suffering other individuals have experienced in the past and continue to experience all over the world. But this knowledge is more likely to colour your daily existence rather than saturate it. How do you contextualize your personal loss without turning it into just another story like the many stories of heartache we read about every day in the news? Sarah Moss’ new novel “The Tidal Zone” has an astounding way of looking at a potential personal tragedy within one household and simultaneously shows how it is situated in the expansive tapestry of human experience. She does this writing in a way which is poetic, profound and filled with wry humour, but it’s also a story firmly grounded in the small details of real life.

The narrator Adam Goldschmidt is a stay-at-home Dad whose domestic routine is abruptly interrupted when he receives a call that his eldest daughter Miriam has stopped breathing. She’s been resuscitated, but the doctors don’t fully understand what went wrong with her body. The novel follows the tense aftermath of this incident when Adam has become hyperaware of the fragility of life, yet the ongoing ordinariness of daily existence continues on regardless. There is dinner to make, clothes to iron, his younger daughter Rose to pick up from school and cleaning to do. All this must continue even while his teenage daughter Miriam impatiently waits in the hospital for weeks while being monitored.

Sarah Moss writes powerfully about how the physical space of a hospital is flooded with emotion: “Hospitals have their own gravitational field, their own atmosphere; you can feel it from the car parks.” Anyone who has spent any length of time in a hospital knows this sensation of all thought and feeling being intensely focused on the immediacy of what’s happening and that life is at stake. There are glancing encounters with the trauma other people experience and there are periods of excruciating boredom while waiting for tests and procedures to be conducted. This reminded me of the wonderfully rendered account of a couple’s vigilance over their sick child in the hospital in Lucy Caldwell’s recent short story ‘Multitudes’.

Meanwhile, Adam’s thoughts also frequently roam to an account of the WWII bombing and subsequent reconstruction of the Coventry Cathedral which he is researching and writing about for a walking tour. He considers how when the city was being bombed people had to carry on with their daily lives and that “Domestic routine takes priority over political violence until the very last minute.” His intense engagement with the stories of people’s fate in wartime shows on a macro level the feelings of uncertainty and heartache he’s experiencing on his own micro level. So when he ruminates upon the strategies and plans the designers of the reconstructed Cathedral take it’s almost as if he’s planning how he can also rebuild a stable household for his family following their intense brush with tragedy.

Adam wants his home to be capable of containing the messiness of ordinary life while also not living in a state of constant emergency where he must be constantly vigilant about his children’s health. He wants them to live in that state of blissful ignorance about the daily dangers and fragility of life while also being aware of the gift of a relatively happy and healthy existence: “may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light”. He’s aware of how these points of view are all filtered through the stories we narrate to ourselves and each other about the past and our present lives. He remarks how “You think you want a story, you think you want an ending, but you don’t. You want life. You want disorder and ignorance and uncertainty.” He’s aware of the ability stories have to drain the lifeblood out of existence and not faithfully represent the feeling of experience. At the same time he knows that “Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives.” How to live fruitfully without the need for constant reassurance?

Most people look to religion, but Adam resolutely states: "I'm not a believer. I trust that's already clear." Inspiration comes from Adam’s father who never allowed himself to be confined within the story that was written for him. He spent years travelling the world and living in intentional communities. Living with groups of other people, they tried to rewrite the rules by which our personal lives are played out under the regulations of larger society. Many of these communities weren’t able to sustain themselves in the long term and Adam’s father is very attentive to their shortcomings: “My generation screwed up all right, just like the one before, but we had ideas. Yes, also like the one before.” He doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of where they went wrong, but at least they tried to conscientiously create a better way of life rather than conforming to the standards laid out for them by their parents. Adam gleans from this a strategy for his family to live in a way which doesn’t confine them to a humdrum existence. Incidentally, I really appreciated getting this balanced perspective about a post-war generation’s experiments with intentional communities after reading the rather one-sided view in Kate Atkinson’s otherwise magnificent novel “A God in Ruins.”

Coventry Cathedral tapestry: "His tapestry Christ in Glory, stood the full height of the building, its solid colours and softness a counterpoint to the brilliance of stained glass, gazing down the length of the nave at the ruins behind."

Coventry Cathedral tapestry: "His tapestry Christ in Glory, stood the full height of the building, its solid colours and softness a counterpoint to the brilliance of stained glass, gazing down the length of the nave at the ruins behind."

There are many more admirable details contained in this beautiful novel than I can possibly recount in a brief review. It meaningfully points out shortcomings in our current society such as lack of employment opportunities, the shortcomings of academic institutions and the NHS and our own inertia watching cooking shows: “we’re all obsessed with obesity and weight loss and also fucking baking.” But it never comes across like the author is whinging; it’s more like she’s articulating and relating to the frustrations many of us feel living within a problematic society. She’s also highly attentive to the positive things about it in the people and systems which do respond to the needs and welfare of individuals. As well as considering these larger social issues, this is a poignant novel about a marriage with a hardworking wife in full time employment, the gender stereotypes Adam challenges as a househusband and the changing dynamics of the relationship between siblings.

“The Tidal Zone” magnificently captures the real grit and poignancy of daily life while framing it within a bigger picture. It’s an emotionally affecting read with realistic and relatable characters that will keep you gripped worrying what will happen to them. This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but I’m now eager to read more of her books.

Have you read anything else by this author? If so, let me know which book by her I should pick up next.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Moss