I said that I was enjoying the opening chapters of Signs for Lost Children; I finished reading yesterday and really want to share it with you. This is the first novel I have read by Sarah Moss, and I'm certainly going to be seeking out her other titles. She writes in a very gentle voice, reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and deserving of comparable critical acclaim; she seduces the reader into the story and creates characters with depth and compassion.
The story is set in the late nineteenth century and explores madness, marriage and culture. The central characters are Tom Cavendish, who has the rather niche job of lighthouse engineer, and his new wife Ally. It is her story that fascinated me the most. A qualified medical doctor, Alethea Cavendish does not fit the mould of late Victorian society. Her education and intelligence are met with much scepticism, many refusing to use her title of Dr with anything beyond sarcasm. It is telling that much of the opposition comes from other women who seem incapable of comprehending Ally's desire to practise medicine. Though equality still has some way to go in 2019, we have travelled significant distance since corsets, teas and calling cards.
Central to the book is madness. Since being enthralled by Bertha held captive in Thornfield's attic in Jane Eyre, I have had fascination for the dual subjects of women and madness. As an undergrad, (yes, a long time ago), I read Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady and the collection of essays compiled by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic, and the fascination for mental disorder and its portrayal in literature was firmly rooted.
Ally's section of the book is set in Cornwall, Manchester and London. Each setting is significant to her development and the development of theme. She is brought to Cornwall as a young bride, clearly in love and longing to find meaning and comfort in marriage. Their marriage has a very challenging beginning however, as Tom is about to embark on months of travel to Japan where he has been commissioned to advise on and build lighthouses. They are together for only a few weeks before he leaves.
It is arranged that Ally will work voluntarily at the Asylum. This was the most evocative and compelling part of the story for me. Moss writes with insight and compassion about the patients and the staff, conveying Victorian attitudes whilst allowing her character to be a voice that is suggestive of change and progression. Ally despairs at what she sees, but she sees beyond the forced feeding, the straitjackets and the isolation to the women whom she treats. She asks questions about sanity and, in particular, the expectations and restrictions on women's life. She points out that a woman is more likely to be criticised for her action than for inaction, for speech rather than silence, acknowledging that in most situations for a woman to be considered sane, she should conduct herself in the way best calculated to drive any reasonable adult to distraction. Brilliant.
Ally's character is complicated by a dead sister and overbearing mother, and appeased but not solved by a loving and indulgent London Aunt who tries to bathe her in luxury in order to protect her clever niece. The role of each of these women is worthy of an essay, but I'm hoping to provide you with a genuine curiosity so that you are encouraged to read this book for yourselves.
Central to Ally's life is the absence of her husband, who has left her to begin a new life and a new role unsupported. This strand - of a woman making her way independently - portrays the real isolation of female trailblazers in previous centuries.
Tom Cavendish is not cruel or thoughtless. Like Ally, he is intelligent, moral and has integrity. His sections are predominantly set in various places in Japan, and Moss evokes Japanese culture in the 1880s with a lightness of voice and depth of authenticity. Tom is appalled by the covetousness of European collectors, and more appalled that he has agreed to act as buyer for one, for a fee that will be life-changing for him and Ally. He is appalled by the attitude of the British ex-pats whilst acknowledging that his own conscience is never fully clear. He seeks to understand the country which is his host, and sometimes he succeeds. He explores myths and culture and craftsmanship, and falls under the spell of Eastern life. Moss writes with warmth and respect as Tom explores the magic of fox mythology in the midst of a foreign rurality, where he concludes that even the light in one place is distinctive...the sun shines differently and the very air seems to have another composition.
Adjustment and readjustment, compromise and integrity form the backbone to this story. Sarah Moss writes about the late Victorian era, but speaks into what it means to be human. There is quiet humanity throughout this book that resonates beyond historical boundaries.
Halfway through the year, this is definitely my top read of 2019 so far. At this point I'll reveal that the author is a leading light in the Warwick Writing Programme, but as she has never been my tutor, I can write without bias or sycophancy.
And I owe a thank you to the students on the Warwick MA who formed the committee to bring our anthology to print. We had a fabulous launch in Waterstones, Piccadilly where I was terrified and excited to read a section of one of my short stories. This was followed by a visit to the Salon Des Refuses art exhibition in Camden the following day to see my sister-in-law's exhibited artwork. A talented artist, Bernie Grist has been a continual support to me in my writing, and we share the excitement and struggles of trying to work authentically and enthusiastically in markets where it is difficult to get exposure. The launch of Chimera gave me a glimpse of publication, but the MA as a whole has given me tenacity and opened new ways to approach my work. I have discovered how I write, how to improve my writing and how to find satisfaction in the process of writing. It has, so far, been a year of my life for which I am profoundly grateful.
Writing, and reading the writing of others is enriching and affirming.