Wot, no motivation? A Review of Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I still can’t figure out if this is supposed to be a skull or not. Fair use for review.

Flat and short, Ghost Wall lacks character motivation more than any novel I’ve read in long while. Now presenting: The ‘Their’s Not to Reason Why’ award. *One or two weak claps in a dim, mostly empty banquet hall.*

Teenager, Silvie, is dragged on a two week vaca-experi-recreation of iron-age living, no idea why. A college professor leads it, no idea why. College students spend some of their summer vacation doing this, no idea why. Silvie’s dad, bus driver and physical abuser, goes because he loves the cavemen stuff as much as he loves beating up his wife and daughter. Mum is dragged along to be the cook because dad will beat her up if she doesn’t. Dad orders students around around as though he’s their abusive boss and they all allow it, no idea why. Just why is dad here anyway? Random people aren’t normally allowed to show up in college courses or to join multi-day course camping trips just because they have an amateur’s interest in the subject. ‘Do this, do that,’ barks dad. They all do this and do that, no idea why, this and that being foraging (during which Molly sneaks to the store) or foraging, or foraging, or cooking the foraging, or foraging, or eating the foraging. If dad doesn’t like either the foraging or the cooking he beats up mum.

Daddy dearest calls his daughter a whore and whips her with his tunic belt until she has lasting marks down her back and legs. Silvie doesn’t run away, no idea why. Mum puts up with being beaten too, no idea why. I am aware of the psychology of battered women who stay in an abusive relationship, but this in itself doesn’t provide motivation for either woman’s actions.

The professor, a twonk evidently, sees none of it, no idea why. He lets random dad boss his students around, no idea why. Most other students are so shallow as to be part of the landscape; at any rate they apparently don’t see or mind the abuse, no idea why. Molly is the underdeveloped break-the-rules woman exception to the student characters. She needs to be, someone has to save the day.

The trope of a teen injustice with no ready resolution is the short first chapter (in which Silvie is stripped and tied up for the sacrifice) to be concluded in the last chapter (in which Silvie is suddenly saved by the police) is an unoriginal hook. Silvie agrees to play a sacrificial victim, no idea why. It appears she’s going to become a real victim, no idea why. Finally Molly summons the police. Surprise! I know why — a crime was reported and the Police do their job. Yay, it’s over.

GW was about as fun as chapped lips. The derailing of the plot progression via memories, bus stops on the story route, didn’t fit what I thought was our contract with the author for immersion in the immediacy of the vaca-experi-recreation. Thus, the distractions diminished the intended power of the climax. To see how the goal of emotional power arising from injustice and as a supposedly natural condition of the societal contract can be fulfilled with expertise, read Shirley Jackson’s great story The Lottery.

In GW we have the professor, the bossy leader, two women…all that’s needed is to find Gilligan under a berry bush. Sprinkle in women from 1970’s movies who are simply passive victims, add a hint of faddish reality shows like Opposite Worlds (in which those who lived minimalist luxury, the future, were separated by a glass wall from from those who lived caveperson style, the past) that ran for only one season (it’s never been officially cancelled), and there you have the novel.

My mistake was at first taking GW to be an adult novel. I now believe it’s simply young adult twaddle. In recognizing this, I now find sense in adult characters who are cardboard personas and who are either mean or aloof. I now see the logic of the older, liberated rule breaking Molly being Silvie’s idol. I now clearly get that the novel is written to connect with the first world teen female mindset. Do those readers expect only the briefest nods to their norms? I can also pinpoint the moment I was completely swayed to this viewpoint, here with this glaringly obvious and narrow didacticism: “He doesn’t hit me, I tried to say, I’m not scared of him. I took a breath and opened my mouth but the words didn’t come out. Ok, she said, fine. You don’t have to talk about it. But it’s not OK for someone to hit you. There is something wrong.” Really? It’s not OK for someone to hit me, gee I never knew. I would tell you this, but my mouth…*in the manner of Captain Kirk* Can’t. Get. Words. Out. I guess I never realized that seventeen year old women have no clue that people shouldn’t beat on them. Crikey and catch me unawares, who would’a thunk it? Is is it really near 2020 CE instead of 480 BCE? Gawd how time flies. Oh yes, and thanks for moralizing at me as though I’m a senseless toddler. *crinkles nose*

GW lacks in necessary places, it’s overwritten in wrong places, and when both those strategies fail we wade through a bundle of cliches. It’s money for an old rope and it has about as much depth as a sunburn. Don’t bother, or better yet to bastardize Clement Clarke Moore:

To the top of the porch! to the top of the Ghost Wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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