Every generation takes a certain satisfaction in holding in contempt the generations that come after it, almost as if we are evolutionarily obligated to remind the world just how bad things have become. The sentiment is understandable, even if the criticism it generates is often unfounded – we are all stewards of humanity, after all, and we don’t want our descendants to screw things up more than they already are. What’s more difficult to reconcile is the notion that everything was better back then just because it was back then. No generation is unimpeachable. Every one of them has their vices and virtues because each harbors responsibilities thrust upon them by circumstances other generations don’t have to deal with. Millennials don’t have to have lived through World War II to understand financial precarity any more than boomers need to experience record levels of student debt in the goddamn gig economy. Once we accept that generational adversity is bespoke, all it takes is a little empathy to understand that grievances past, present and future are relative. Absent that, the nostalgic becomes the maudlin, the maudlin becomes anger, and it’s only through anger that people allow themselves to denigrate and dehumanize the kids these days.
“Ghost Wall” takes this idea to a frightening extreme. Sarah Moss’ slow-burn tale of the not-quite-macabre centers on a young girl named Sylvie, named after an ancient Celtic deity called Sulevia, the “Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools.” What would seem to be a pretty name, though, is actually an exercise in self-indulgence by her father, a cretin whose dark presence looms over the story as if he is part of the setting rather than a character himself. A blue-collar everyman who earns his living by driving a bus, he developed an affinity for the Iron Age civilizations that populated what is now northern Great Britain and commits all his free time to learning more about them. (In that sense, “Sylvie” is merely an expression of his obsession.)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the lives of one’s forebears, nor is there any harm in appreciating the pastoral simplicity of an earlier existence. But his obsession goes further than that. He straight up resents contemporary society and is condescending to anyone who’ll listen about how Britons today just don’t get it. (What kind of idiot would buy vegetables when they can forage for them? What kind of person can’t start their own fire?) And he does it with a mostly unearned sense of superiority. Well-read but formally uneducated, he’s proud of the knowledge he has amassed on Northumbrian life, and he zealously imparts onto Sylvie tidbits of wisdom about flora and fauna and ancient mores that are about as interesting to a pubescent girl as could be expected. But these conversations are the only things that resemble paternal affection. The rest of the time he’s abusive and controlling. He’s insecure about his lot in life, and even more so – often violently so – about his lack of education. Sylvie is almost always the object of his anger.
It’s against this backdrop that the story takes place. He uses his only vacation days to participate in an anthropological field trip to northern England to live as the ancient Britons did, equipped only with whatever was available during the Iron Age. He drags Sylvie and his wife along with him, and the professor who hosts the excursion, as well as a few of his students, round out the party.
When the students correct the father on his mistakes, Sylvie bears the brunt of his ire. Yet his growing anger is owed not just to his own shortcomings but also to the way his precocious daughter takes to the trip. She begins to see new possibilities available to her, inspired, albeit subtly, by the students’ independence, by their financial liberation, and by the realization of her own intelligence. Her budding emancipation comes at a cost though. As the party becomes more accustomed to ancient ways of life, things take a dark turn, culminating in a plan to re-enact a human sacrifice, just as the Britons used to do it, and the father naturally volunteers Sylvie to be the victim.
“Ghost Wall” is written with a kind of restraint and suppression that mirrors Sylvie’s existence. Short but dense, it’s eerie and subtly political, insofar as the father evangelizes the rejection of modern society even as he ultimately falls victim to its laws. This is a man, after all, who believes life before modern medicine and creature comforts like shoes and beds is superior to life today. The days of yore no doubt have their merits, but unquestioned fidelity to those days flies in the face of human progress, and as Sylvie reminds us, it’s especially dangerous when it harms others.
Cole Altom, managing editor
The Caucasus has a long and complicated history. For those unfamiliar with its power dynamics and demographic makeup, its countless invasions and conflicts between various clans and tribes, this history can be difficult to follow. The region is a crossroads between the Western and Eastern worlds, a bridge between Europe and Asia, and one of the main routes between China and Europe. It’s also a convenient launching pad for incursions into the Middle East and the Caspian, Black and Mediterranean seas.
Many books have explored these themes at length, but they can be arduous to get through because of the region’s complex dynamics. However, “Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars” by writer and journalist Nicholas Griffin was both fascinating and easy to read, in part because it is based on the author’s own journey through the region. Griffin traveled through the mountains of the Caucasus with a small film crew to uncover the historical roots of the region’s modern conflicts. It’s a useful book for people who have little prior knowledge of the history of the Caucasus as the author uses simple language and stories to explain complicated topics. The book doesn’t delve too deep into the peculiarities of each country, but it does devote a lot of space to Imam Shamil and the Caucasian War of 1817-1864 – the Russian Empire’s invasion of the Caucasus. Having become the third imam of Chechnya and Dagestan in 1840, Shamil tried to unite the disparate communities of these two regions against the invading Russian Empire. Shamil is often presented in literature as a noble figure, one who refused to give in to the Russians. But Griffin takes an honest look at some of the myths surrounding Shamil. For example, his reforms, aimed at decreasing the powers of other Muslim leaders in the region, were actually met with some resistance because they challenged the traditional way of life for many in the Caucasus.
I would also recommend “Geopolitics of the Caucasus” by Russian political scientist K.S. Gadzhiev. This book, which focused on the development of independent states in the region and the evolving relationships among them, is much more detailed than Griffin’s. Unfortunately, Gadzhiev’s book has not been translated into English, but if you happen to speak Russian, it’s a worthwhile read. If not, Griffin’s book is a good starting point for those who want a better understanding of the region but have little prior knowledge of its history.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst