Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Brief thoughts on a couple of relatively recent reads, both of which explore the theme of overbearing, abusive men and the alarming power they exert over impressionable young women.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Just as good as I expected it to be given the tidal wave of positive reports and reviews. This is a taut, skilfully-crafted novella in which the twin horrors of past and present-day abuse come together to devastating effect.

The story takes place in the midst of a heady summer at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s (I can’t quite recall which). Sixteen-year-old-old Silvie and her parents are participating in a student encampment in the Northumberland countryside, complete with its wild surroundings and natural terrain. The camp is being run by Professor Slade, an archaeologist with an interest in the Iron Age world; more specifically, its way of life, mysterious rituals and ancient beliefs. During their stay, the participants must live their lives as the ancient Britons once did – existing in the wild, hunting for food and observing Iron Age traditions.

I don’t want to say very much about Silvie or what happens to her at the camp – it’s best you discover that for yourself if decide to read the book. (Throughout the narrative, Moss carefully reveals specific information about Silvie and her family in a way that never feels calculated or manipulative.) What I will say is that the final chapters shook me to the core – this is a striking book in more ways than one.

There is some beautiful writing about the natural world here, particularly in the author’s evocative descriptions of the countryside: the feel of the ground underfoot; the wild plants and berries along the way; the images of water breaking up the terrain.

You move differently in moccasins, have a different experience of the relationship between feet and land. You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet. (p. 27)

All in all, an excellent novella. It has that blend of beauty and brutality which I love, a little like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Dorian has written about this novel in more detail here.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

A thoroughly chilling tale of the innocence of love and the oppressive nature of tyrannical men. Quite different from her other, lighter books – The Enchanted April in particular.

Devastated by the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle – young, vulnerable and terribly innocent – comes into contact with Everard Wemyss, a man also recently bereaved and seemingly in need of a kindred spirit for support. At forty-four, Everard is much older and worldly-wise than Lucy, putting him in a position of authority and control. As such, he takes charge of the Entwhistle funeral arrangements, relieving the pressure on Lucy at a traumatic time.

Aside from Lucy, everyone at the funeral assumes Everard is an old family friend, returning to pay his respects to the late Mr Entwhistle. At this point in time, only Lucy knows about Everard and his personal circumstances – more specifically, the recent death of his wife, Vera, following a mysterious fall at the couple’s country home. (A little later it emerges that the incident has created something of a scandal around Everard, a point intensified by the open verdict at the inquest into Vera’s death.)

Dazed by the trauma of grief, Lucy finds herself strongly drawn to Everard with his confident, capable manner and kinship in a shared sense of loss. However, as Everard inveigles his way into the Entwhistles’ company, a more sinister side to his character begins to emerge – something the reader is privy to even if Lucy is not.

She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe. He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared. Vera’s face hadn’t done that. Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. (p. 26)

Much to the concern of her benevolent Aunt Dot, Lucy soon agrees to marry Everard, believing him to be a source of comfort, reassurance and love. However, it is only once the couple are married that the true nature of Everard’s merciless personality comes to light. In truth, Everard is unpredictable, cruel and intolerant – even the smallest details are liable to spark a tantrum if they are not in line with his orders or wishes.

At first, Lucy is quick to try and forgive Everard for these outbursts, rationalising them to herself as the consequence of his grief. There soon comes a point, however, when these eruptions prove more challenging to excuse…

She was afraid of him, and she was afraid of herself in relation to him. He seemed outside anything of which she had experience. He appeared not to be – he anyhow had not been that day – generous. There seemed no way, at any point, by which one could reach him. What was he really like? How long was it going to take her really to know him? Years? (p. 168)

To make matters worse, Everard thinks nothing of bringing Lucy to The Willows, the foreboding house in the country where Vera fell to her death. Once firmly ensconced in her new home, Lucy must contend with the shadow of Vera, something that feels virtually impossible to ignore in spite of her best efforts. The house is littered with reminders of the first Mrs Wemyss – from her books in the sitting room, to her portrait in the dining room, to the place where she fell to her death, just outside the library window.

Vera is a very powerful novel, one that highlights the destructive nature of tyrannical men when their behaviour is left unchecked and allowed to run rampant. The tone is chilling and sinister, all the more so when we learn that the story was inspired by von Arnim’s own troublesome marriage to Earl Russell, brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There is a childlike innocence to Lucy, with her trusting nature and wide-eyed view of the world, something that leaves her open to abuse by the autocratic Everard.

At first, I was a little surprised by the novel’s ending, but looking back on it now it all feels sadly inevitable. This is a cautionary tale that still holds some relevance today in spite of the radically different times. Definitely recommended, particularly for fans of character-driven stories with a dark or disturbing edge.

Several others have written about Vera, including Ali and Simon.

My copies of Ghost Wall and Vera were published by Granta Books and Hesperus Press respectively; personal copies.

41 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

  1. A Life in Books

    Ghost Wall is superb, isn’t it. Such a powerful piece of fiction and so beautifully written. I’ve only read one Von Armin and that was Enchanted April – Vera sounds very different.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I thought Ghost Wall very impressive, both taut and finely honed. A very striking piece of work all round. As for Vera, it’s very different from The Enchanted April, almost as if it’s been written by another author altogether (one from the Gothic tradition, perhaps).

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I was just saying on Susan’s blog yesterday that I’ve had mixed experiences with Sarah Hall but I’d like to try her again – Ghost Wall sounds excellent. Vera is completely terrifying isn’t it? I came away enraged! Such a brilliant piece of writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This was my first Hall, so I don’t have anything to compare it with, sadly. That said, on the strength of this I would definitely try another. Which of her books have you read? I’d be interested to hear more, both positive and negative!

      Reply
      1. madamebibilophile

        I read her first two, Haweswater which I really liked, and The Electric Michelangelo which I liked in parts, but didn’t quite come together for me. Still plenty to recommend it though! I do think she’s a very talented writer.

        Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Both books sound very good. You hand made me very curious about Ghost Wall. Stories about abusive people can be a bit disturbing but I think that it is necessary that fiction sometimes take this topic on. I am trying to read more recently published fiction and I might give this one a read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, as you know, I don’t read a huge amount of recently-written fiction either, but something about this novella in particular really appealed to me. I’d been thinking about trying Sarah Moss for a while, largely based on positive reports of her earlier books; so when the positive reviews started to roll in for this one it looked to be too good an opportunity to miss. Plus it’s short which often helps when you’re trying a *new* writer for the first time. I’d definitely encourage you to pick it up, especially if the premise appeals.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Sorry to be tempting you again, John, but think of it as payback for all those film noirs you’ve been tempting me with! ;)

      Vera would make a great melodrama – very much in the style of Hitchock’s Rebecca, I think.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Well, both of these sound excellent, if very chilling. I must admit I’m a bit nervous of going near Vera, particularly as despite the book’s age, I keep hearing about similar controlling modern day men. It does seem that not much changes! :(

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that’s kind of what I thought when I decided to put these two novels together in one piece. Many things have improved since Vera’s time, but there’s still a long way to go. I’m sure there are many modern-day examples of vulnerable young girls falling under the spell of an older, more powerful man, especially if they are reliant on that individual for money and shelter. A sad situation indeed…

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I thought Vera was every bit as powerful and thought provoking as you seem to have. The ending was inevitable. I must re-read it some day. Von Arnim seems to have quite a lot to say about marriage really throughout her work. I really like the sound of Ghost Wall. I might have to seek out a copy, I too have been persuaded by the reviews of others.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think we had very similar responses to Vera, which is partly why I kept my piece fairly short. The book’s atmosphere is very menacing, isn’t it? Quite Gothic in style and mood.

      As for Ghost Wall, I would definitely encourage you to pick it up. It might be a good one for your feminist book group as the issues it raises are very much in that vein.

      Reply
  6. banff1972

    Thanks for linking to my Ghost Wall piece, Jacqui. I’m intrigued by the pairing here: I’ve had Vera on the shelves for a few years. Someone whose taste I trust put it in their Year of Reading a while back (maybe Caleb Crain?). Your piece is good incentive to dig it out!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! I need to go back and read it in detail now that I’ve posted my piece!

      To be honest, the pairing came about partly by accident as I’d read the two books at around the same time. It was only when I came to write them up that I realised they might work well together as a pair, particularly with the common theme of abuse. There is a difference in the degree of agency between Silvie and Vera, Silvie being somewhat better equipped to fight back against her aggressors. But even so, both are placed in perilous positions at the hands of these horrific, tyrannical men.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. That comparison only came to me fairly recently, just as I was writing this piece. It’s something to do with the mood as well as the combination of beauty and brutality – the sense of tension in the atmosphere which feels palpable to the reader. It’s a little difficult to put into words but hopefully you’ll know what I mean!

      Reply
  7. Radz Pandit

    Ghost Wall sounds very intriguing Jacqui! I had purchased the book a couple of months ago based on all the positive reviews on Twitter, so am glad that you rated it highly as well. Very keen to get to it soon!

    Reply
  8. lizipaulk

    Vera sounds interesting, but it’s not a von Arnim title that I’ve heard of before. It’s curious that it’s so different from her other work, but I’m not that well versed in it so far. Perhaps Vera is more “typical” for her as opposed to the gentler volumes I’ve read so far? …

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read a huge amount of von Arnim either – only Vera, The Enchanted April and the German Garden one. Nevertheless, from what I’ve picked up elsewhere, it seems that Vera is somewhat atypical in its darkness. Maybe she needed to get it out of her system before moving on to other, more uplifting novels, especially given its associations with some of her own experiences?

      Reply
  9. clodge2013

    I thought Ghost Wall was excellent, tight, very scarey. In fact I think everything Sraha Moss writes is very interesting and good. She challenges some cosy notions through her female characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I get the sense that she’s not afraid to tackle troublesome attitudes and beliefs…and yet she does it in a way that never feels dogmatic or preachy. It’s very much down to the reader to draw their own conclusions from the narrative, and I like the way she handles this aspect of her work.

      Reply
  10. Julé

    ‘Ghost Wall’ is something else. Amazing how Sarah Moss builds tension from the very start to that almost unbearable point so subtly; as soon as I finished the book, I turned back to the beginning and read it again, not a word is wasted. I’m still wondering what might have happened to all the characters after it ended.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree. The way Moss creates that sense of unease, and the manner in which it ultimately escalates, is very impressive. I read somewhere that she actually writes every book twice, deleting the first draft before embarking on the ‘proper’ version. Very scary indeed, especially when you consider that as she doesn’t keep a back-up copy in case of any difficulties with the rewrite!

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I’m pretty much the only person who hated Ghost Wall. I was so disappointed as I liked everything else by her. I also immediately forgot after finishing it. Strange sometimes. Vera sounds excellent. I’d love to revisit Elizabeth Von Arnim.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very intriguing to hear. Was there something in particular you didn’t like about the Moss or the whole thing? Life would be terribly dull if we all had the same responses to particular books or other creative pieces, so I’m sure you’re not the only reader who didn’t take to it. (It’s the only Moss I’ve read so far, so I don’t have anything to compare it with in terms of her other work.)

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I found she was imitating herself and her, in my opinion, better books. And a bit heavy handed how she incorporated current affairs. As I said, most of it is gone from my memory.

        Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Liz Dexter

    A clever pairing. I’ve read enough about the Ghost Wall to know I can’t go there, and I’m sure I have read Vera, as I have a copy, but it must have been pre-blog! Shocking! I did read Moss’ non-fiction book about living in Iceland for a few years, but that disappointed me because I didn’t feel she tried hard enough to learn the language, etc. (having tried hard and not got very far myself, I think I was jealous she got to LIVE there) and was very critical of the place. Anyway, a good pair of reviews.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. The pairing only occurred to me as I was writing them up. Initially, I had Ghost Wall in a another post, possibly as part of a broader round-up of other things. But then I realised that the idea of abuse — particularly at the hand of fathers and husbands — could be considered a linking theme. I’m glad to hear that you think they work together as a post.

      The Moss is not for everyone, particularly given the nature of the denouement. That said, it’s pretty effective. A short, sharp shock of a book, if that makes any kind of sense. It’s interesting to see your comments about her Icelandic adventure – not a country I know very much about although the idea of visiting definitely appeals!

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        I’ve been to Iceland four times now. If you consider going, I’d recommend Edward Hancox’s “Iceland, Defrosted” which I felt gave a truer flavour of the place.

        Reply
  14. Max Cairnduff

    I was very impressed by Ghost Wall – my second Moss (I reviewed her first novel Cold Earth at mine – https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/cold-earth-sarah-moss/). Although I’d liked Cold Earth her second novel sounded very similar then her Iceland memoir touched again on similar ground and didn’t sound that great, so I sort of lost focus on her. My loss as she went on to write several very good books by all accounts.

    This, I loved the language, but also the deepening claustrophobia. The inevitability it takes on. I thought it really very good indeed. I expect it to make my end of year list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the claustrophobia is palpable, the sense of everything closing in on Silvie as events hurtle towards their climax. What I find so frightening about this book is the way the events depicted seem wildly outlandish yet also entirely believable all at once. I’m not sure I’m expressing this very clearly, but there’s something utterly terrifying about the possibility of these rituals actually being carried out. The fact that they COULD happen in real life, however unlikely that might seem…what a horrific prospect.

      Reply

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