The British writer Sarah Moss’s new novel, “Ghost Wall,” which is out this month in the U.S., compresses large and urgent themes—the dangers of nostalgic nationalism, the abuse of women and children, what is lost and gained when humans stop living in thrall to the natural world—into a short, sharp tale of suspense. The way Moss conjures up the dark magic and vestigial landscapes of ancient Britain reminded me a little of the horror movie “The Wicker Man,” from 1973, or of the music made in the sixties by groups like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. The novel’s feminism, though, felt utterly contemporary.
“Ghost Wall” ’s teen-aged narrator, Silvie, is spending part of a summer on an “experiential archaeology” program in rural Northumberland, where she and her parents are trying to live as much like Britons of the Iron Age as possible—wearing scratchy tunics, foraging for burdock roots, stirring god-awful porridges with wooden paddles. Tramping over the moors there “feels as if you’re being offered on an open hand to the weather.” Silvie is alive to nature, and fascinated by the mummified bog people unearthed in that part of the country. But she chafes against her father’s manifold rules for historical authenticity. He longs to re-create a past when, as he imagines, “women managed well enough” toiling in submission, and true Britons had not yet been corrupted by foreign elements.
Also on the trip is a university professor whose breezy confidence in what he knows and how he learned it annoys Silvie’s father, and three posh students whose lackadaisical approach to the reënactment irks him even more. One of them, a young woman, befriends Silvie, and their connection has powerful consequences for them both. I was not familiar with Moss, who has written five previous novels and a memoir about Iceland, as well as scholarly books about polar exploration and the history of food. But I’m certainly intrigued by her now. I read “Ghost Wall” in one gulp in the middle of the night. It was a worthy match for 3 A.M. disquiet, a book that evoked existential dread, but contained it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.