Sarah Moss’s excellent Bodies of Light appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine earlier this year. Signs for Lost Children is its sequel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses.
The novel opens with Ally and Tom very much in love. Ally knows that Tom must fulfil his six-month assignment in Japan but dreads a separation made longer by both the voyage and a lucrative commission to seek out Japanese artefacts for a local collector. Ally takes up her post at the Truro asylum, insulted and spurned by the nurses who want no truck with a female doctor, particularly one who thinks that kindness and empathy will help the inmates rather than the rough often brutal treatment they dispense. Lonely, still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s cajoling, judgemental demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall where she is made a surprising offer. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, opening himself to what had at first seemed its strange customs and forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. As the six months come to an end he can hardly bear to leave, no longer longing for home or for Ally, the wife he hardly remembers after such a short time together. These two must find a way back to each other, or lead separate lives.
Moss demonstrates the same eye for a striking phrase in Signs for Lost Children as she did in Bodies of Light: one of the Truro inmates displays ‘breasts flat as empty socks’; Tom’s guide is ‘somehow clothed in self-possession’ despite his nakedness in the communal baths. Her descriptions of the Japanese netsuke Tom buys are exquisite. There are many references to Bodies of Light but so subtly done that they act as little memory joggers for those of us who’ve read it, effortlessly filling out the details of Ally’s troubled early life for those who haven’t. It’s a book which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time: What is madness? How does it come about and how should we recognise and treat it? It also has profound points to make about human behaviour and morality: ‘Our labour and our moral worth are not the same thing, for what price kindness?’ thinks Ally of her mother who ceaselessly works for the poor but shows neither affection nor concern for her own daughter, dismissing her ‘nervous complaints’ as self-indulgence. Tom’s and Ally’s stories are told in separate alternating narratives – both equally engrossing – delicately intermeshed by the couple’s longing for each other and the gradual fading of that yearning. It’s a beautifully executed novel, every bit as good as Bodies of Light.
I still haven’t got around to Night Waking in which May, Ally’s sister, first made her appearance in a collection of letters found two hundred years after her death. May trained as a nurse, taking up a position on the Hebridean island of Colsay where she hoped to introduce modern midwifery practices but as readers of Bodies of Light will know, she was also determined to escape her puritanical mother and live life on her own terms. Another book which came to mind while reading Signs for Lost Children is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a history of the treatment of mental illness in women. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing read at times but complements Ally’s experience well for those who’d like to learn more.
Just one more thing to say in what has become a rather long and rambling post: Hats off to the jacket designers. Just as the original cover for Bodies of Light fitted Ally’s father’s arts and crafts work beautifully, so this one is a lovely echo of Tom’s Japanese experience. It’s a thing of delicate beauty.