Back in 1978, I remember watching a BBC television series called “Living in the Past”. In it, a group of volunteers spent a year living in a recreated Iron Age settlement. It was the first time I came across the phrase: experimental archaeology. (By this time I had long since read The Kon-Tiki Expedition and The Ra Expedition, but it would be some years later before I associated those adventures with experimental archaeology.)
I mention this only to suggest that there is nothing new in the idea of living in an Iron Age roundhouse. The various couples in the BBC series were not archaeologists themselves, but nor were they playing with the idea of being pre-Roman Britons. The programme showed it to be an often harsh and miserable existence. One family left part way through when their child fell ill, but everyone else stuck with it to the end. And if I remember rightly, there was a follow-up programme in which all of the participants insisted that they had learned from the experience.
Above all, it was not a game.
Which is where I start to have problems with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is a highly-praised book, and I can understand and appreciate why that should be so. And yet I kept running up against doubts and questions.
The setting is an exercise in experimental archaeology that has been set up by a professor and three of his students. Also taking part in the exercise are a working class family, Dad, a bus driver who prides himself in being an enthusiastic and reputable amateur when it comes to ancient British history, his wife, and their daughter, Sylvie, who is the narrator. That’s rather too small a group to recreate Iron Age living, but it is just about acceptable for dramatic purposes.
The problem I have is that at no time do we get any notion of what the archaeologists are doing there. There is no aim to the experiment, and there has been no preparation for the experiment. When the students are sent out to forage for food, they have no notion of what foods might be found, or what might be edible and what poisonous. And the same goes for the professor, who has not prepared either his students or himself, and who seems to have no idea what he is doing from one moment to the next. As the supposed expert – he is, after all, teaching a course on experimental archaeology – it is as if he has suddenly found himself dumped in the Iron Age with no idea what to do next.
And because he is clearly not taking any of this seriously, neither do the students. They are all playing at the Iron Age, and by extension they are all playing at archaeology, even though for all four of them that is their chosen profession.
The only one taking any of this serious, and this is of course the point of the book, is Dad. Through him, of course, both Mum and Syl take it seriously, but only because they are terrified of Dad. And Dad is living in the past in more senses than one. He is the old-fashioned northern working class patriarch who rules his family by intimidation and violence. He is ready in an instant to thrash anyone who lapses from his strict and absolute rules. He is a monster, and far and away the most vividly drawn character in the novel. (But then, monsters do tend to leap off the page, don’t they?)
While the focus is on these three – horrific Dad, Mum cowed to inertia, and Syl more alert to what might trigger Dad’s violence than to anything else around her – the novel is chilly, sharp and powerful. But it needs the others. Or rather, it needs two of the others, the two male students are largely undifferentiated extras there to bulk out a scene as necessary. In the first place, it needs Molly, the careless, sybaritic student who gradually comes to realise what tortures, mental and physical, Syl is enduring. Molly is bright, mercurial, a flashing contrast to the dark, foreboding bulk of Dad.
But it also needs the Prof, because he is the one who enables the climactic expression of Dad’s violent and controlling nature. But the Prof is a non-entity, he has no character, at no point do we get any glimpse of why he is doing anything or what he thinks is going on at any point.
The purpose of experimental archaeology, particularly of the living-in-the-Iron-Age type, is practical. How did they live? How did they do that? What was it like? But at no point does this particular exercise in Iron Age living consider such questions; Syl has learned hard lessons, and so knows how to gather burdock roots and bilberries for the group to eat, but even such essential practicalities seem of little interest to anyone else. But rather, Dad’s madness (is he mad? We are not told, but there is surely something not quite sane about him) quickly steers the professor and his male students towards that bugbear of archaeological interpretation: ritual. They construct a ghost wall, a wicker fence adorned with skulls to frighten away the enemy. And after that, Dad convinces them to take the next step, the sacrifice, the bog body, and nobody cries halt, nobody says that is not why we are here. And yet we have to take Dad’s domination over the Prof as a given, because we never see it in action. And because we never understand the Prof, we never understand why events might follow this path.
The only other book by Sarah Moss I have read is her first novel, Cold Earth, a book with which I was considerably less enamoured than most other people seem to have been. I like Ghost Wall much more than that, but it is still a novel that feels as if something is missing, a little extra depth, a little extra solidity.