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Posts Tagged ‘Signs for Lost Children’

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.

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