This short novel is one of the best things I have read in a long time. It is powerfully discomfiting and hostile: from the rugged Northumberland woodland where the characters are living, to the toxic masculinity that infects the male characters in the space of only a week. Silvie, the 17-year-old narrator, and her parents are engaging in a reenactment of Iron Age life. They take part alongside a University professor and three apathetic students who wear mocassins and scratchy tunics for course credits, but who are happy for a quick trip to Spar or to the pub in between.
Bill, Silvie’s father, is a nationalistic, working class bus driver with a chip on his shoulder. His obsession with ancient Britain turns him into a man with little regard for anything that does not lie with the values of the past: he is a brutal misogynist and the hold upon his family is evident, even when he is not around. Silvie and her mother are not on this reenactment willingly. Silvie’s eavesdropping of the students talking about “CVs” and “going to Berlin” early on shows us exactly the claustrophobic life she is living, as she wonders “how you would even get to Berlin” – demonstrating exactly the vice she and her mother are in. Domestic violence is hinted at and, at one stage, described in brutal detail, and throughout the novel this pervasive masculinity slowly pollutes the other male characters. Pagan rituals, foraging and skinning rabbits become almost like childsplay to the men before the increasing cruelty that takes place as the novel unfolds. Moss’ novel focuses on the brutality that lies underneath normal life, like the Iron Age’s own practice of ‘ghost walls’ to frighten the enemy, that line the beautiful woodland with sinister skulls of the dead.
However, Moss shows some glimpses of change and hope, and indicates that we need to recognise and appreciate the progress of the present. Molly, one of the students, rages against the male characters, refusing to do their work and telling Silvie’s mother not to wash the boys’ clothes. She takes a highly anxious Silvie to Spar instead of foraging for bilberries, and is perceptive in recognising the cloud that Silvie and her mother live under. The role of the brutal father can often be seen as a two-dimensional plot device for a louder message on misogyny, but the beauty and difference of Moss’ novel is the layers of emotion and relationship that has clearly existed in years before. As Silvie is now essentially an adult, this has become lost, and she now shares the same status as her beleaguered mother – even more powerful and tragic to read as we understand the depth and confusion of the emotional bonds she has. While domestic abuse becomes almost normalised under the stark rituals of the Iron Age, Moss seems to also be showing us that there is always some hope for a different path. There is a friend, a relative, or a kindly shop assistant, if only we know where to turn.
This novel is everything a book that wins the Women’s Prize should be – I loved it and have not stopped thinking about it since I read it. To quote the man in Waterstones who served me: “it’s wonderful, but insidious.”