Ghost Wall Explores the Human Cost of Nativist Nostalgia

Sarah Moss’s new novel about Iron Age reenactors could have been a plain Brexit parable. Instead, it’s a deeper exploration of societal cruelty.

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A ghost wall, according to the novelist Sarah Moss, is a battlement made by ancient Britons, hung with the preserved skulls of their ancestors. It didn’t work—the Romans still came, followed by the Anglo-Saxons and then the Normans—but you can see why the Iron Age Britons might have tried it. When walls are built to keep out foreigners, many of them rest on some idea of blood claim. This is our land, not yours. And we have the bodies to prove it.

Moss’s tiny, sharp knife of a novel Ghost Wall follows a group of reenactors who call themselves “experimental archeologists” as they re-create Iron Age life in Northumberland, England, some time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of cellphones. The group is divided by both class and ideology: Half are posh intellectuals from an unnamed university, taking part for course credit. The other half are members of a working-class family: Silvie, the 17-year-old narrator; her long-suffering mother; and her abusive and nationalistic father, Bill. Bill has joined the project on his vacation (dragging his family along) because he reveres the Iron Age and is searching for “his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.”

So the reenactors hunt and scavenge, wearing moccasins and eating bilberries in the hope that if they “walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago,” then “some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone.”


The ideological split between the two groups shows early. Bill wants to find some version of “original Britishness”; the students smugly tell Bill that there have never been native Britons, just immigrants who have been here longer than others. Ghost Wall’s preoccupation with borders and class, authenticity and ancestry could render it a plain Brexit parable: the brutal and uneducated nativist in contrast with enlightened college students. But a persistent theme of this acutely lovely novel is the way in which all societies—whether ancient or modern, rich or poor—depend on scaffoldings of cruelty, from the meat they eat to the clothes they wear. Wealthy and democratic societies demand sacrificial victims too, even if the killing is outsourced.

Ghost Wall almost reads as a response to two recent novels by Paul Kingsnorth, a naturalist and Euroskeptic whose protagonists bear a close resemblance to Bill. The first, The Wake, is a confected Old English-ish–language novel set during the Norman invasion of 1066. It is narrated by a guerrilla fighter named Buccmaster, who rails against old ways of life dying out and the broken bond between a people and its land. Though Kingsnorth describes the bloody Norman invasion rather than the milder yoke of the European Union, the parallels are clear and the message seems to be: Land belongs to the people whose ancestors lie underfoot.

To Buccmaster, the world worsens and grows less free as time passes: “Our fathers was freer than us our fathers fathers stalcced the wilde fenns now the fenns is bean tamed efry thing gets smaller … Freodom sceolde there be in angland again lic there was in the eald daegs in the first daegs of the anglisc.” Kingsnorth carefully avoids Latinate words, brought over by what the narrator calls “ingenga”—foreigners.

The same message is picked up in the author’s sequel of sorts, Beast, set 1,000 years later and narrated by someone named Buckmaster, who seems like a descendant or reincarnation of the Wake protagonist. Buckmaster leaves his wife and child, and goes out onto the moors in search of a place “where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges.”

Those characters aren’t uncomplicated heroes, but they have a tortured, Learlike nobility in their rage. Bill shares their disdain for the modern world of globalization and junk food, immigration and technology; Ghost Wall shows him, though, through the eyes of the people who bear the cost of his obsessions.

Moss and Kingsnorth pull from similar themes: ancestral bones, cultural purity, blood and sacrifice, the idea of Englishness itself. But they seem to be telling the same story from opposite sides. Buccmaster hates the invaders with their “fuccan frenc ingenga tunge,” hits his family, and insists that the land is his by right and by history. Ghost Wall, by contrast, shows what happens to the people around men who are obsessed with what is theirs, and whose idea of “freodom” is partly about the freedom to hurt others.

Silvie, for instance, is every bit as in love with the natural world as her father, and as suggestible to the myths of the old Britons; she just doesn’t believe that she has an exclusive claim on either. She can love something and not need to own it. In this character, Moss, whose work has long plumbed the psychological roots of timely issues, offers a beautiful corrective to the rugged, wild-man archetype, and emphasizes the human cost of nostalgic nativism.

One of the ways she does this is by drawing parallels with the bog bodies, ancient humans tossed (possibly as sacrifices) into the peat bogs that dot northern Europe. Ghost Wall opens with a flashback of an Iron Age girl being thrown into the bog as a kind of offering. In a poem about the bog bodies, Seamus Heaney described this land as “kind, black butter / Melting and opening underfoot.” It filled every orifice with choking mud, embalming people, so much so that when a preserved body was found in a peat bog in Cheshire, England, in 1983, a man who lived nearby immediately confessed to murdering his wife. The body had been there for 1,600 years.

Bill takes Silvie to see that body in a museum, and shows her, terrifyingly, on her own body where the Iron Age people would have pierced it. And when the archaeologists are wondering what cherished thing each of them would sacrifice to the gods in the bog, if they had to, Silvie knows what her dad’s answer would be: her. Eerily, Ghost Wall posits that the Iron Age people could think of their victims as talismans, almost alive: “faces wavering through the clear water, mouth and skin and hair arrested in the retreating moment of loss while time continued to pass for the rest of the community.”

The novel probes the tension between cherishing something by letting it grow and change, and leaving it unchanging in the mud forever. “My dad likes museums,” Silvie says at one point. “He likes dead things.” One of the university students gently offers a rebuttal: “I’d like to make things be alive again.” (Later, Silvie calls museums “bone-houses,” which is the Old English word for a body or corpse: bānhūs. It’s the kind of quiet detail that makes the whole book feel like a web of shimmering connections, unshowy but endlessly complex.)

So what kind of people would carefully and ritualistically maim their neighbors and stake them into the mud to be preserved for eternity? Ghost Wall suggests an answer: modern people as well as ancient ones; people whose lives depend, in myriad small ways, on the pain of others; people who think that love involves ownership. And when the “dance of muscle and bone” begins to work its magic and some of the old ways offer themselves up to the reenactors at last, they, like the ancient Britons, discover that the only way to keep something yours and unchanged forever—a country, a language, a culture, or a person—is to kill it.