Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

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‘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.’

With Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss has produced a tiny masterpiece, a novel which – like all great horror stories – mines the human condition to excavate that which we would rather remained buried.

Silvie and her family are spending their summer holiday in Northumberland with a group of students from an ‘experiential’ archaeology course, the aim being to live like our Iron Age forebears. A teenager, Silvie finds herself torn between two camps: her  father,  a man whose frustrated archaeological dreams have produced a brooding bully who casts a violent shadow of control over his wife and daughter, and the students with their  youthful freedom, exuberance and easy sexuality: a family drama haunted by the fate of the ‘bog girl’, sacrificed by loved ones so many, many years ago…

‘The bog seals around you, and it will of course go further than skin, or at least will fill the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from inside out.’

There are two strands to ‘Ghost Wall’: the dreadful abuse at the heart of Silvie’s family life: in Bill (Silvie’s father) she has created a brooding monster whose ice cold heart spreads shivers all across the long, hot summer days and in Alison (Silvie’s mother) the  worn down woman-child whose voice you only ever hear as a timid whisper, afraid to defend herself or her precious daughter. Silvie is a finely drawn portrait of a teenager: innocent and yet acutely aware; footloose but far from fancy free; bright but dim: a conundrum waiting for the key to somewhere, anywhere but here.

And intertwined with this is the strange relationship between land and history, between folk and memory, time and space. How somehow traces, essences can seep through the land, through time and speak to us, influence us: this is something which Nigel Kneale has written about in a number of his plays for television, notably ‘The Stone Tape’ in which scientists investigate a reputed haunting, to discover that the spirits of the long dead have been ‘recorded’ in the very stone which forms the building. But that is an  overtly ‘supernatural’ work whereas ‘Ghost Wall’ is more subtle (and I mean that with no disrespect to Mr. Kneale or the supernatural genre) in that it deals purely with the natural world, but imbues it with an overwhelming power which holds us – humanity – close to it as bit players, mere walk on parts, destined to live and relive our petty dramas while it carries on, regardless. But while the ways of those no longer here may seem alien, perhaps their instincts – our shared nature – is never far away, hiding beneath the surface, waiting, waiting…

‘Of course, 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.’

‘Ghost Wall’ is a short, sharp jolt of a novel. For some, perhaps, the leap of faith to reach the denouement may be a little too far, but if you abandon yourself to Ghost Wall’s soothing rhythms and creeping dread, you will not be disappointed.

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Scary stories for Hallowe’en

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There are many scary stories out there, from Stephen King and Shirley Jackson to the wonderful Pan Books of Horror Stories. Hopefully, the following selection includes some lesser known and unexpected choices…

Firstly, in her centenary year, some Muriel Spark. ‘The Driver’s Seat’ is one of her most slender novels. Lise has left behind her life and boarded a plane to head for foreign Spooky1climes to find, perhaps, a boyfriend. We are only a few pages into the story when we are told,

‘She will be found tomorrow morning dead form multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.’

What follows is a tense, macabre story of a woman in search of her destiny…

One of my favourite horror films is ‘The Wicker Man’, the tale of a policemanspooky6 trying to solve the mystery of a missing young girl on a Scottish Island community which lives by the old Pagan ways… A novelisation of the film, by the film’s director Robin Hardy and script writer Anthony Shaffer, was published in the 1970s, but I had no idea until recently that the pagan shocker was ‘inspired’ (to put in politely) by an earlier novel, ‘Ritual’ by David Pinner. The similarities are staggering, with a policeman called to an enclosed Cornish community to investigate the death of a local child and slowly ‘subjected to a spectacle of psychological trickery, sexual seduction, ancient religious practices and nightmarish sacrificial rituals.’

‘The Fly Paper’ was a short story by Elizabeth Taylor and recently I came across the television adaptation which was part of the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ series from the 1970s. This series was broadcast in the early evening when I was a child and yet, when I stumbled across this episode recently and by accident I was taken aback by the damp, chilly atmosphere of the film and the forlorn, sordid nature of the story. A young girl is followed home from school by a strange man who tries to befriend her on the local bus, leading to a denouement which lived with me for days and one all the more shocking for the similarities to one of Britain’s most famous, and reviled crimes. ‘The Fly Paper’ is available on YouTube.

I have written about Marghanita Laski‘s chilling ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’ before. It is available in an lovely Persephone Books edition, so you’ve no excuse not to track it down!spooky8

Finally, from fiction to a different kind of horror. Gordon Burn was a great writer (his novel ‘Alma Cogan’ is one of my favourites) and ‘Happy Like Murderers’ is his account of the lives and crimes of Fred and Rosemary West who, throughout the 1970s and 1980s groomed, sexuality abused and murdered a string of young people, including their own children. This is a truly disturbing book, full of the vilest spooky9imagery and incidents which many horror novelists would baulk at. It is not for the squeamish, but it is an important book which delves into how the Wests lives collapsed into this horror show and shows that, like most crimes, the crimes of Fred and Rosemary West did not occur in a vacuum. Psychology can – possibly – explain some of what happened, but ‘Happy Like Murderers’ also shows after the West’s arrest, there must have been an obscene number of people who found it difficult the sleep at night…New2

And finally, a recent book which I shall be writing about shortly, ‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss: a gripping story of teenage Silvie and the strange atmosphere which overwhelms all those on an ‘experiential’ archaeological holiday in Northumberland. Certainly one of my books of the year.

 

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Beautiful Books 8

or, ‘You can (sometimes!) judge a book by its cover’

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‘Land’ by Antony Gormley, Clare Ricardson and Jeanette Winterson.

Given Jeanette Winterson’s upbringing in a Pentacostal family, it seems strangely apt that this book should have an almost biblical quality to it, perhaps doubly apt in that the contents are a hymn to nature – in Winterson’s words, Gormley’s sculptures and Richarson’s photographs of them. Or perhaps that is what I see in a beautiful book – something to worship, to covet, to praise…

What this book also has is a beautiful compact feel to it, tightly bound as if trying to constrain the contents, slender because – as we all know – size isn’t everything. It is a perfect size for a book, being 201mm x 134mm and a compact 15mm thick.

Recently I’ve realised that a lot of my favourite books are slender volumes, taught, sharp and to the point. Is it an age thing whereby I find meandering, weighty volumes much more difficult to focus on? Or is it – as recently discussed in a ‘Guardian’ article, the art of the editor in fiction isn’t what it once was? Or maybe the art of brevity has died out? Just look at the work of Muriel Spark, for instance: many of her novels are short morsels of razor sharp wit with the leanest of prose.

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And here are a few more of my favourite examples:

 

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This month’s book haul…plus

New2Firstly this month is a book which I have almost finished and which might well be my favourite book of the year so far: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I’d not read anything by Moss before but have become increasingly aware of her work and this slender tome (which always appeals to me) cried out to be read: teenage Silvie, her domineering father and bullied mother have joined a group of students taking part in a summer of ‘experiential archaeology’: learning about the Iron Age by living the life. It is a brilliant hybrid of a novel: a coming of age tale via Nigel Kneale’s ‘The Stone Tape’; a painful examination of the brutal forces at work within the family drama; a folk horror take without an element of the supernatural. Wonderful!

Next up are a couple of cookery books. The first – Claudia Roden‘s ‘The Food of Spain’ was bought because I longed to find a recipe for a dish I recently had in MallNew1orca: ‘pudding’ – basically a Spanish/ Mallorca version of bread and butter pudding. This book was the only Spanish recipe book I could find which includes a recipe for it (although it doesn’t carry one for another great Mallorcan dish, tumbet which is a delicious variation on ratatouille). However, it is a great book, filled with great writing, recipes and stories. ‘Jewish Cookery’ by Leah W Leonard does just what it says on the tin: lots and lots of Jewish recipes which I find intriguing – however, I may have to invest in Claudia Roden‘s Book of Jewish Food to get a bit more history and background  on how and why these recipes came into being. AAAA3

The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity’ by Kwame Anthony Appiah is a timely look at the myths and nonsense which have arisen around how we identify ourselves, be it through ‘Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture’. 

I think I was one of the few people who found Sarah Perry‘s ‘The Essex AAAA2Serpent’ underwhelming. However, I’m giving her another go with her latest, ‘Melmoth‘. And finally, a book to satisfy the lover of pretty things: ‘Margaret the First’ by Danielle Dutton. This came to my attention purely because of the beautiful cover which. I hope, sheaths a great novel – it certainly sounds intriguing, concerning as it does Margaret Cavendish, an eccentric, intelligent women of the seventeenth century who was the first AAAA1woman to address the Royal Society, wrote acres of poetry and philosophy and created controversy wherever she went.

And finally, this month sees the return to the screens of my favourite obsession, Dr Who, with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. If you’ve missed it then I urge you to watch episode 3 of the series, ‘Rosa’. The Doctor and her friends travel back in time and meet Rosa Parks, whose determination to fight segregation on a bus kick started a revolution. Exciting and desperately moving. Hurrah!

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Returning to Reims – Didier Eribon

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‘Our past is still there in our present. So we remake ourselves, we recreate ourselves (a task that is never finished, always needing to be taken up again), but we do not make ourselves, we do not create ourselves.’

Edouard Louis, the young French writer who has written – controversially in France, at least – about sexuality and class, has often cited Didier Eribon’s ’Returning to Reims’ as akin to ‘reading the story of my life‘. Given my praise of Louis books ‘The End of Eddy‘ and ‘History of Violence‘, Eribon’s book seemed like a must.

Didier Eribon is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. He grew up in an impoverished working class part of Reims, an intelligent, gay outsider who – once he had the means and ambition – left a painful past behind him, only returning when his father was terminally ill. He returns to find an alienated working class whose neglect has pushed many further away from his own left-leaning beliefs and politics (which he sees as the natural home of the working classes) into far right territory. This book is an attempt to understand the reasons for his escape, the reasons why he felt shame at his working class origins and how his homosexuality energised his thirst for ‘freedom’ together with the causes an implications of the shifting experience of working class life.

There is a lot to admire in this book. It is interesting to hear his intentions to come to terms with the shame he felt at his working class origins, about how he has ‘had such an intense experience of forms of shame related to class, shame in relation to the milieu in which I grew up…’ but this intent sometimes comes across as an academic exercise rather than a heartfelt desire. Whilst reading the novels of Edouard Louis I wondered why – considering the clear autobiographical nature of the books – he had chosen fiction as a method of publishing his story. Unfortunately, ‘Returning to Reims’ shows just why that might be: in comparison this book is filled with dull academic speak and sentences, paragraphs which achieve only one thing: migraine. Perhaps, I thought, this stodginess could lay at the translator’s door. Camille Paglia, for example, when discussing the translation of French philosophers:

Most American academics are totally lost when trying to read French polemic. They have no idea that in French you can form sentences that are virtually content free, that are merely rhetorical flourishes echoing, reversing, or sabotaging prior French sentences’

However, Eribon actually shares the same translator – Micheal Lucey – as Louis’ ‘The End of Eddy’. So, it would appear, the faults are Eribon’s own, including the stinking snobbishness and aloofness which returns time and again to betray Eribon’s noble intentions:

‘The Grandfather I knew was a window washer’ (why use this strange phrase when the more dignified ‘window cleaner’ is just as appropriate)

‘All my life I have been well positioned to notice what an extent normality and abnormality are realities that are not only relative, but also relational, mobile, contextual…’ (Hmm, so Miss sets herself above the rest of us does she?)

‘My subconscious had kept it hidden,’ she said, making odd use of some psychanalytic lingo she must have heard on television.‘ (Because – silly me – the only source of instruction for working class people is television? And exactly why is the phrase so ‘odd’? It seems perfectly fine to me)

Sometimes, there is a clear, lucid mind at work, commenting on how modern politics (both left and right) often doesn’t pay attention to the reality of people’s situations and lives, preferring neat little boxes and simple definitions to the messy reality…and a system which ends up blaming those people for not conforming to those constructions; of how those very people he writes about are unlikely to read the book that writing produces; the ‘linguistic inventiveness’ of the working class (which I have also written about here); and how ‘artistic and literary objects’ inject into an individual a sense of self-worth, ‘a gap between yourself and others – those from an ‘inferior’ or ‘uncultured’ class’, often displayed in galleries where that feeling of superiority ‘can be read in the discreet smile which never leaves their lips , or the way on which they hold themselves, the way they talk knowingly as connoisseurs , the way they display how at ease they are in these circumstances.’  – something which is often unavailable to the working classes (Again, something I have also written about).

I can perfectly understand the conundrum of being balanced between two worlds, viewing a dichotomy which seems impossible to bridge, but to do so needs a brutal honesty both about oneself and those across the divide. It strikes me that what Eribon lacks in self awareness he more than makes up for in disdain he shows to the working class he left behind. Take, for example, his remembrance of an incident in his childhood when he witnessed his mother being abuse by the woman who employed her:

‘Even today, remembering that scene – and that horrible tone of voice! – what disgust I feel for a world in which insulting people comes as easily as breathing, what hatred has remained with me over the years for those kinds of power relations, those hierarchical structures!’

And yet, Eribon is part of that hierarchy – a part considerably higher than the place he left behind – but nowhere does he clearly acknowledge this. Sure, he implies and circles around the point but brutal honesty is the only way to deal with the possibility that a reader may get a whiff (or rather more than a whiff) of hypocrisy and romance.

Occasionally, Eribon can be bold in his assertions. When talking about democracy he confesses that be believes the notion of everyone being equal is a nonsense: not everyone has the skills, knowledge or ability to become a leader – and there is some truth in this, however uncomfortable it may be to those who believe in equality for all. But then he goes and shoots himself in the foot by implying that the overriding notion of ‘competence’ should also be based upon and person’s beliefs: so are we really to accept a form of democracy which precludes certain people from an elected office because of their opinions or beliefs? Really?

…I would not want my mother or my brothers to have their lot drawn…in order to take part in ruling the city in the name of their ‘competence’. The choices they would make would be no different from those they express in the way they vote…’ (my boldness)

Thinking back across his childhood, Eribon also realises that his sexuality played a role his escape: through books and politics, the young boy receives glimpses of a different life, seeing the ‘intellectual’ world as a means to escape the homophobic bullying, as a place where he might finally fit in. But, rather than provide this as a simple statement of fact (and one which many LGBT people may recognise), Eribon feels the need to puff it up until he appears be casting pearls to swine, telling us something new and revolutionary:

‘…it is not…that homosexuality is a way out that someone invents in order to avoid suffocating. It is rather that someone’s homosexuality obliges them to find away out in order to avoid suffocating.’

Of course, sometimes such obviousness does need to be reiterated for, as we all know amongst all the sloganeering and posturing of LGBT politics the truth, the bitter reality is often lost.

‘It is never enough… to have turned the stigma around, to have reappropriated the insult and changed its meaning; to do so does not do away with its capacity to hurt us. We walk a tightrope between the wounding meaning contained within the insulting word and the prideful reappropriation we might have made of it.’

As you can probably guess I found Eribon’s book is a frustrating read: simple truths wrapped up in back breaking verbal gymnastics; a failure to analyse his own position within his journey and, most importantly the failure to address his terrible snobbishness which threatens to capsize the whole undertaking…and yet, there are moments of insight and thoughtfulness which makes me think there was a great book waiting to escape these pages. Unfortunately for Eribon, it took Edouard Louis to write it.

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Tile

This beautiful explosion of colour and energy was one of a pair of tiles which decorated the doorhandles of a run down back street boutique in Porto Christo, Mallorca. Sometimes its amazing what tiny delights you can find when you open your eyes and look.

 

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