Back in My Day…

Historical reenactment has always seemed a weird yet compelling activity to me. Sure it is easy to laugh at grown adults in period costumes trying to recreate a bygone era, but you have to admire the commitment. As a person of many compulsions myself (yes, there is a large schematic of the USS Voyager hanging above the fireplace at home), I definitely understand the desire to live out the obsession, if only for a brief time.

But there is a danger: Do reenactors want to know what it was like to live in an era or do they actually want to go back to that time? Worse yet, do they think of that era as a golden age that needs to be applied to today’s world? It is this possibility for toxic nostalgia that lies at the heart of Sarah Moss’ excellent, haunting and ‘disturbing in a good way’ novel, Ghost Wall.

Sylvie finds herself in a remote location in Northern England with her enthusiastic and domineering father, Bill, and her compliant mother, Alison. They are there for a two-week ‘holiday’ reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons. As you might guess, wearing an itchy tunic, foraging for berries, and eating cold porridge is hardly a dream come true for a young adult. Luckily, they are joined by a group from the local university (a professor of ‘experimental archaeology’ and three students) who provide an outlet for Sylvie to escape her family from time to time.

The author slowly reveals that Bill’s relationship with his wife and daughter is clearly abusive. Worse still, his passion for recreating the lives of Iron Age Britons extends to a rather disturbing ritual: human sacrifice, complete with the disposal of the body in a local bog. Sylvie, due to years of living in an abusive family, has a tendency to accept her father’s bullying behavior even when it becomes extreme. After befriending Molly, one of the students, she begins to see that there is another way of living.

While the plot of this short novel is excellent, it’s really the author’s mesmerizing use of language that stands out. To get a feel for it, a lengthy quote is in order:

Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.

There are many such elegant and thought provoking passages in Ghostwall, making it a excellent use of your limited reading time. No period costume required.