Ghost Wall is a story about Sylvie, a seventeen year old girl, dragged along on an Iron Age reenactment in northern England with her father, Bill.
Bill’s enthusiasm for the Iron Age is a hobby; he isn’t traditionally educated in the subject, and jumps at the opportunity to join Professor Jim Slade and his students for what is essentially a two-week summer LARP. He brings his wife, Alison, and his daughter, Sylvie, along for the ride. It becomes obvious early in the novel that Bill regularly beats Alison and Sylvie, and that his abuse goes further than reenactment: he expects his family to eschew many modern conveniences in their daily lives as well, and cuts them off from the rest of the world in a way that is almost cultish.
It also becomes clear early on that Bill’s fascination with times long past has little to do with a genuine devotion to history, but is a way for him to achieve complete control over the lives of his wife and daughter: Back in “the good old days” women knew their place. Back when the world was simpler, men knew how to be men. Back then, it was the duty of the father to maintain control of his household.
Of course, these are all fantasies, but dangerous ones that Bill uses to justify his vile behavior.
One of the Goodreads reviews for Ghost Wall boils down to “I guess I just like my feminism more subtle than this.” They’re not wrong, and this was one of the reasons why I didn’t rate this book higher. The thing is, I think the lack of subtlety is also part of the point Moss is trying to make. Many readers might find it unbelievable that Dan, Pete, and Jim would miss the obvious signs of abuse–after all, if Pete is astute enough to notice Sylvie’s crush on Molly, something even Sylvie doesn’t quite seem able to fathom yet, wouldn’t he also be observant enough to know that Bill is beating his wife and daughter? And wouldn’t Jim, a college professor, recognize the obvious signs of abuse, violent misogyny, and unhealthy obsession?
Of course. Of course they would have known. While we’re reading Sylvie’s story, shaking with anger and fear, screaming someone just do something! all the men are fully aware of what’s happening and choose not to deal with it, because it is ultimately a situation that benefits them.
Dan, while obviously uncomfortable throughout the book, is convinced it’s not his problem.
Pete’s getting his course credit through what he sees as little more than play acting.
And Jim is getting to live out his own weird obsessions vicariously through Bill.
At the end of the story I ended up hating Jim as much, if not more, than Bill because of the way he took advantage of what he knew was a fucked up situation. When they decide to recreate the (supposedly harmless) ceremonial sacrifice at the end of the book, Jim knows it’s a horrible thing to do to someone, because he admits that he could never ask one of his students to take Sylvie’s place. He convinces himself that, because Bill gives his blessing and because Sylvie doesn’t technically say no, that they’re in the clear. But he’s seen the signs, and knows that not only can he not trust that Bill won’t hurt his daughter, he also can’t trust that Sylvie has any real agency in the matter.
But where all of this is deadly serious to Bill, it’s all just a game to Jim. And hey, he might even get a paper out of it. And it’s equally frustrating to know that when all is said and done, Jim will likely still see himself as the Good Guy™, claiming he “had no idea” and never intended to hurt anyone, because even though he may not be the one leaving marks on Sylvie’s body, he refuses to admit his own complicity in her abuse.
In the end, it is Molly who takes action, the student Jim had written off completely for not having the highest marks.
And this is the crux of Moss’ novel: marginalized populations cannot rely on outsiders to save them, because when the situation comes to benefit them, so-called “allies” will immediately forget all allegiances to those other than themselves. That issues like misogyny, racism, homophobia…the signs are not subtle, we just like to tell ourselves they are so we can guiltlessly turn a blind eye because it’s “not our problem.” That people will find the most creative ways to hide, or at least partially excuse, their awful thoughts and behaviors.