Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Moss’

I’ve read and enjoyed four other books by Sarah Moss so when I browsed Europa Editions books available on my library’s eBook app, I was excited to see Signs for Lost Children. As with her previous books, Moss examines women’s lives from the inside, exploring how her characters’ interior lives impact the sides of themselves seen by their family, friends, and neighbors. Apparently this is the second in a two book tale about the main character, Alethea (Ally) Moberly — the first, Bodies of Light, is set in her childhood; I’m not sure how I’d enjoy that given the glimpses of her childhood in this book. Ally’s sister May is also referenced in Night Waking, as a nurse Anna reads about as she researches the history of childhood. It’s interesting that Moss has traced different aspects of these characters’ lives through several books.

In Signs for Lost Children, Ally is finishing medical school in the late 1800s, a still unusual path for women at the time. She meets a lighthouse engineer, Tom Cavendish, after her cousin hears him speak at a lecture series. Tom is intrigued by this thoughtful woman and she by a man who seems to appreciate her work. Despite the fact that he has committed to a months-long expedition to Japan to consult on a lighthouse, the pair marry and move to Cornwall, where Tom works, and where Ally takes a position at an asylum.

Moss works into the story information about mental healthcare (such as it was at the time) and attitudes towards the “mad” as asylum inmates were called. The details about how Ally feels about asylum “treatment” and what she believes a better approach would be are interesting. It’s clear that much about Ally’s own upbringing causes her pain and impacts her own mental wellbeing. As the book develops, Moss shows us Ally’s growing awareness of how her own experiences have prepared her to be a good doctor, and yet also expose her to the possibility of reopening old wounds as she empathizes with her patients.

The second major thread of the book is about Tom’s experience in Japan, which is also fascinating. Japan at the time — the Meiji period — was opening up to the West and within its own society after casting off feudalism. On his journey home Tom reflects that the time when Japanese experts will be sought out in the West rather than vice versa is not far off. In his time in Japan he comes to appreciate the simplicity of homes, attire, and cooking. But it doesn’t escape his notice that women silently make all that happen and men enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The final piece of the book is a lovely examination of marriage and the strangeness of forming a new life as a couple. As in her other books Moss writes with great sensitivity about marriage, although Ally and Tom are mutually kind and supportive which is different than the marriages portrayed in some of the other books Moss has written. The night before the wedding, Tom asks if she’s looking forward to it and Ally thinks:

“Her mind stretches towards the words he asks to hear, towards the speaking of affection and desire. If she did not know better, she would say that there was a physical change in her, that her heart rests more comfortably under her breastbone for his faith. She would like to tell him that she sleeps more easily and wakes without the life-long start of dread at another day. That his importance to her is frightening. Without looking at him, she nods.”

Ally and Tom face added hurdles to establishing a life together as his prolonged absence and her professional challenges impact their early marriage. And interestingly, it’s his return that is the most challenging thing. She’s published a paper and is directing a new convalescence home, Rose Tree House, a kind of halfway house where women from the asylum who have not passed their discharge interviews but are considered potentially capable of doing so in the future live together, tending a garden and chickens, keeping the house, preparing and sharing meals, and engaging in small projects like sewing. Tom is unsettled by the change in her and in himself upon his return, and she has lost confidence in being at all loveable. They have to try more than once to start over.

It all feels very realistic, the struggle to find themselves, he a man who feels outside of things because of his life, circumstances, his solitary work, and his travels, she, who shares his sense, as her friend Annie says,of being “strangers in a strange land” because of her work and gender and because “she has always known that she doesn’t know which fork to use or what should not be said in mixed company or among ladies with their gloves on.” For Ally, Rose Tree House is the new beginning she wants, making a real difference in the lives of women no one has understood. It’s inspiring, and it’s good to read a novel where a woman’s wellbeing hinges on claiming her own space as well as making space for others.

As always, Sarah Moss provides much food for thought, wrapped up in a lovely story with many interesting threads.

I should add that I read the seventeenth Maisie Dobbs book — A Sunlit Weapon — and loved it. I don’t like to review books that are part of a series because I know as a reader I like to begin at the beginning. If you haven’t read this series, take the link and read my view of the first book in the series and go for it. It’s a delight.

Read Full Post »

I’ve read a few of Sarah Moss‘s other books (Night Waking, Ghost Wall, and her memoir, Names for the Sea) and they all followed a fairly regular narrative arc, albeit with some shifts in time and place. Summerwater tells a story but not in a traditional way. Instead, Moss reveals pieces of the lives and experiences of several different people staying in vacation cabins — think small and inexpensive places with thin walls, close together — in Scotland. It’s summer, but it’s been raining hard for a week. The inhabitants are restless, tired in spite of being on vacation.

The views we have of them provide a view into one small aspect of their lives, on one day in one place. It’s a little more detail than you’d get from standing in the window of your vacation cabin staring into others’ windows, but only a little. Moss shows us an older couple, one of whom seems to be losing her grasp on memory, heartbreakingly able to recall poetry from childhood (which is where the novel’s title comes from) and even what she wore to recite it but not more immediate things like what she was looking in her purse for, the other of whom is impatient with that. A little girl from the “party” house, whose family are Eastern European, who isn’t dressed for the weather (another of the children in another cabin wishes she had “shiny patent shoes and white lace tights like that girl”) and who draws the attention of several other mothers, and a manipulative girl a little older than she is.

The mothers, and some of the fathers, are mostly on edge. Struggling to have a break while doing housework and cooking with shabby rental cabin kitchenware and tired ingredients because there are no stores nearby. I loved the description of being unable to slice some mushrooms past their prime so just hacking them up for a pasta sauce — been there! And entertaining kids without their usual toys and no internet, and trying to be sexy for their spouses (it’s a vacation, expectations or at least hopes are high). Worrying and tired and wondering if their kids are ok. The kids are also worrying — about their pecking order among siblings, about their fussing parents, or if they’re older, about being stuck with their parents. One teen discovers a veteran living in a tent in the woods and visits him. Another escapes by kayaking, even in a driving rain. Moss captures all of these different perspectives astutely, and slips from one to the other in brief chapters.

She even slips into the perspectives of the wild things nearby. I loved “Maybe They Dream” — a two paragraph chapter. “The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droop. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands.” You have to read the rest. It’s lovely and, actually, dreamy. I will look out at the thin woods behind our house differently for having read this.

Similarly, she explores how birds, badgers, ants, foxes, and deer experience both the strangely torrential rain and the humans. Particularly the pounding music the emanates from the party cabin. It’s an interesting thought that even as the noise irritates the other vacationers, it disturbs all creation, right down to the ants in their underground nests. Even though this is really a book of character (and creature) sketches, not a plot driven story, Moss slowly builds tension, touching on many of the existential worries of our time — climate change, the hold our devices have on us, Brexit, gender roles. The end surprised me.

A quick read that will linger, with so many facets of human experience and range of emotions packed into a short, lovely book.

Read Full Post »

Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

Read Full Post »

I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

Read Full Post »