Books

Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss: Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie

Doug Johnstone discovers a tense novel that proves that when it comes to misogyny there's nothing new under the sun

I’m a sucker for any book that uses resonances between the past and the present as a central theme. This week we have two very different books in style and content, but they both give a wonderful sense of the continuation of human interaction with the environment over time.

The first is the succinct and sublime Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. Set around 20 years ago, it tells a seemingly simple story of a group of archaeology enthusiasts who spend some time camping in the Northumberland wilderness, attempting to recreate as much as possible the Iron Age way of life. The novel is narrated by teenager Silvie, whose father is an amateur expert, a bus driver by day and a keen historian by night. Also in the group are Silvie’s somewhat beleaguered mother, a professor from a local university, and a group of research students.

The story is very short at only 149 pages but it packs an incredible emotional punch. It opens with a flashback to Iron Age times, with the sacrifice of a young woman by her tribe, and that dramatic beginning hangs heavily over everything that follows, as tensions within the group simmer then eventually boil over into aggression and bitterness.

Key to the novel is Silvie’s relationship with her bullying and domineering father. It’s clear from the outset that he is controlling and closed-minded, and as they delve deeper into the ancient way of life, his confidence in his own authority becomes stronger and stronger. He is also a stickler for authenticity in attempting the recreation of Iron Age living, something the research students make fun of, and that conflict, as well as the class differences that arise from it, is another source of tension that always threatens to explode.

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Illustration: Dom McKenzie

Moss depicts the connections between the people and the landscape with wonderful and lyrical precision, not a word is wasted on the page in her supple prose, and she is also expert at revealing her characters through the tiniest act or gesture.

Ghost Wall is a masterclass in the ‘less is more’ style of writing, creating unbearable tension right up to the violent climax. What’s more, those resonances between history and today are powerful and deeply troubling. Moss tackles patriarchy, misogyny and the abuse of power with understated skill, and collapses the millennia to reveal an eternal problem.

Resonances also run deeply through Kathleen Jamie’s Selected Poems. The Scottish author is these days perhaps best known for her wonderful nature writing, but this comprehensive selection from almost four decades as a published poet is just as accomplished and affecting.

Selected Poems is comprehensive in drawing from her seven previous collections, and while her style does mature and deepen as time passes, there are clear elements dealing with the environment and our relationship to it right from the start. As evidenced in her nature books, Jamie has an incredibly keen eye for the telling detail, a way of glimpsing the world slightly askew that breathes new life into old ideas about people and the way we interact with the world.

There is also a good deal of politics in here, but it’s politics with a small ‘p’, a sense of exposing injustice and hypocrisy to the light, something that it shares with Sarah Moss’s work. Spellbinding stuff.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (Granta, £12.99)

Selected Poems Kathleen Jamie (Picador, £14.99)

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