book: Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss


I would probably have loved this had I listened to an audiobook version (not that I ever do listen to audiobooks, but this is just a hypothetical, you understand). As it was, I read the book in the print version and so had to cope with the author’s idiosyncratic ideas on punctuation, which meant that the main emotion I felt toward a tale that could have been right up my street was irritation.

There are good reasons why people use quotation marks. There are good reasons why they use paragraph breaks for alternating lines of dialogue. Failing to use either of these stratagems simply makes the text less clear, and for no purpose that I could ascertain — or even guess at.

So, the plot in a nutshell. Teenager Silvie is taken with her family, a bunch of students and an archaeology professor to spend a fortnight living in the Northumbrian countryside as the Iron Age population there, the bog people, might have done. Most of these happy campers make greater or lesser compromises with the ideal — the local Spar does good business selling junk food to people in coarse-woven tunics — but they do indeed largely subsist on vegetables foraged from the wilds, mussels, fish, snared rabbits, and so on.

The person who abides by the commitment with absolute conviction is Silvie’s amateur-archaeologist father, who’s as vile a character as you could hope not to meet. Forever enraged about something, Dad knocks Silvie’s submissive mother around and is prone to beating a naked Silvie with his belt for the slightest infraction of his iron rule — or even for no infraction at all, if the mood takes him.

Silvie is befriended by one of the students, Molly, who’s a true free spirit, and through that friendship — more like a crush, on Silvie’s part — begins to open herself to the wider world.

Matters take a turn in the direction of The Lord of the Flies. The re-enactors build a ghost wall in something like the manner of the ancient Celts, although instead of bedecking its uprights with human skulls they use animal ones. There comes the idea that, too, they could mark its construction in the manner it’s thought the bog people did, with a human sacrifice. A virgin, perhaps. And, since Silvie’s the only virgin to hand . . .

The brutish, sadistic Dad is the character who comes across the strongest here: beside him, the novel’s other implied horrors pale. This is by design, of course, because Ghost Wall has a none-too-subtle feminist subtext. Just as among the bog people (it’s assumed), the roost today is ruled by brutish males who do their best to keep “their” females under their thumb or even under their lash. Even the seemingly mild-mannered, avuncular archaeology prof eventually falls into the stereotype. The only male who doesn’t, one of the students, is a milksop who slopes off when Silvie’s life is put on the line. Women must be resourceful and intelligent to resist these monsters.

This all smacks to me a little too much of caricature. Not all men beat their wives and flog their daughters. Not all men bully women. Not all men find patriarchies unobjectionable. And so on. The real world isn’t as clear-cut as that.

Still, I wasn’t too bothered by this simplism; I was perfectly prepared to read the book as a fable, or at least as semi-fabulated, rather than as a realistic depiction. It did, however, make the book’s finale a trifle pat, as the US Cavalry brave women gallop to the rescue, tarantara.

As I said at the outset, despite my various qualms, this is a book I’d have enjoyed very much more had its author not forced me to fight my way through various textual thickets created by her deliberate failure to punctuate her text properly. I’ve no objection to difficult texts — far from it — but prissy pretentiousness over mechanical aspects like quotation marks is unclever: just annoying.

Of course, being a mere male I would say that, wouldn’t I?

10 thoughts on “book: Ghost Wall (2018) by Sarah Moss

  1. I usually give writers fairly wide latitude regarding punctuation given that I have my own issues, especially with commas and semicolons. It sounds like maybe Moss did this purposefully in this case for some odd reason(?) If not, shame on the editor. Regardless, between this and what sounds like a ham handed plot, I believe I’ll take this off my tbr. Thanks for the honest review John.

    • Oh, no, this was certainly a deliberate policy on the author’s part (and certainly no fault of the copyeditor): clearly the author thought it was clever to omit the quotation marks and the para breaks. I could find no good reason for the policy beyond, I dunno, looking “sophisticated” in the eyes of the chatterati, perhaps? For me, it just made the book difficult to read.

      That said, lots of people love the book, including a few habitues here whose opinions I value highly. So please don’t dismiss it on the basis of just my views.

  2. Oh dear…I’m sorry you didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading this book, especially as I feel at least partly responsible for encouraging you to try it. The layout and lack of quotation marks didn’t bother me so much, but I can understand why you found it rather frustrating.

    As a slight aside, I’m wondering if this is becoming a bit of a thing in contemporary novels? I’ve read a couple of others recently in a similar vein: no paragraph breaks to indicate a change in dialogue from one person to another; no quotation marks or other ‘traditional’ forms of punctuation. It’s an interesting approach, but I’m not entirely convinced that it adds to the reading experience, certainly in some instances!

    • I think the defective-punctuation thing is just a fad (hope so, anyway!). I’m actually all for breaking the traditional rules if there’s some purpose in doing so — think, for example, of how the ebb and flow of literacy in Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” heightens the pathos — but here it just seems just a bit of pretentious “Aren’t I a clever-clogs?”ishness. Bah, humbug!

  3. The ultimate book as far as unpunctuated dialogue is concerned is William Gaddis’s JR, where every remark is introduces with a dash – and we’re never told who’e talking. For a bit, I found it offputting, but then you’re swept away in this deranged and incredibly funny logorrhaeic nightmare with every character jumping in paying no attention no attention to anyone else. recommends a spoken-word version highly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.