Tag Archives: Names for the Sea

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: The Man Booker wish that got away

Cover imageRegular readers may already have noticed that I’m a fan of Sarah Moss’ writing – Names for the Sea, Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone have all been given an outing here – and with Ghost Wall, it seems she’s surpassed herself. A mere 150 pages long, this novella is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie has been dragooned into a summer project by her father, a bus driver and enthusiastic amateur historian. Together with three students and their professor, she and her parents will live as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, cooking what they forage and dressed in rough spun tunics. Sylvie’s used to Bill’s didactic ways. She knows more about their subject than Molly, Pete and Dan who are playing at re-enactment, sloping off to the local Spar for covert supplies and spending the odd illicit evening in the pub. Molly applies her nail varnish and changes her matching bra and pants regularly, frivolities Bill wouldn’t permit Sylvie or her mother, Alison. Women disgust him. Easily offended by the slightest show of knowledge other than his own, Bill takes his frustrations out on Alison who’s relegated to cooking their meagre meals. As the hot summer days wear on, Sylvie and Molly become close. Molly becomes increasingly unsettled by marks on Sylvie’s body, marks she tries to hide. Flush with their success at the recreation of a ghost wall, used by the Ancient Britons in an attempt to repel the Romans, the professor and Bill are intent on another, more sinister re-enactment.

Told through Sylvie’s voice, Ghost Wall is a much tighter piece of fiction than the four previous novels I’ve read by Moss. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book – from Sylvie’s shame to the sneering voice in her head – offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the landscape in hot weather:

Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.

Walking up there, it feels as if you’re being offered on an open hand to the weather, though when you look down there are plenty of soft little hiding places, between the marsh grass in the boggy dips and in the heather, vibrating with bees, on the slopes.

The novella’s climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. This is such an impressive piece of work. At the end of my Man Booker wish list I said that I might well read a gem published before the deadline that I would regret not including and this is it. Once again, however, the judges disagreed.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Atonement to Oscar and Lucinda #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Ian McEwan’s Atonement which is about thirteen-year-old Briony who misconstrues an event she witnesses one scorching summer day in 1935 leading her to make an accusation she will regret for the rest of her life.

Atonement reminded me very much of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between in which young boy becomes caught up in the relationship between a young man and woman and is irreparably damaged by it.

Julie Christie played a starring role in the film adaptation of The Go-Between just as she did in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd which I’m unable to watch without snivelling. Even the music starts me off.

There’s a scene in Hardy’s novel involving sheep which makes me cry all the harder unlike the one in Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

Butterflies in November is set in Iceland where the novelist Sarah Moss spent a year as a visiting academic. She writes about what it’s like to be a foreigner in a country so small that everyone seems to know each other in her entertaining memoir, Names for the Sea.

Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea is set nowhere near Iceland and I can remember very little about it having read it a very long time ago but I do know that it won what was then called the Booker Prize.

As did Oscar and Lucinda which is my all-time favourite winner (so far). Gawky, misfit Oscar Hopkins meets fellow gambler Lucinda Leplastrier – equally the misfit and unexpectedly in possession of a large fortune – on board a ship sailing to Australia where both wager their futures on the construction of a fantastical glass church. Set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century colonialism it’s a wonderfully witty, vibrant pastiche of a Victorian novel.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an English summer’s day in 1935 to nineteenth-century Australia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: Living in uncertain times

Cover imageI’m something of a Sarah Moss fan having thoroughly enjoyed the closely linked Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children,  set in the nineteenth century, and Names for the Sea, her account of her year spent in Iceland. Her writing draws you in: it’s imaginative, witty and she knows how to spin a good story. The Tidal Zone leaps forward two centuries from her last novel to the present day when Adam gets a call from his daughter’s school. Miriam has been found collapsed and not breathing. Now resuscitated, she’s about to be rushed to hospital.

Adam is a stay-at-home father and has been since Miriam was born fifteen years ago. He has a part-time job teaching at the local university, while his wife Emma is a GP, caught up in working sixty hours a week with little energy left over for anything else. After her collapse, Miriam spends the next two weeks in hospital enduring a battery of tests – scared but determinedly hiding it under a stream of lacerating sarcasm. She’s a bright, articulate teenager, fully equipped with the well-developed, self-righteous political awareness that goes with that particular territory. Adam keeps the household afloat, taking the increasingly resentful eight-year-old Rose to school and spending all the hours he can at Miriam’s side while Emma continues to work, reaching for her daughter’s notes the minute she arrives at her bedside. It is, of course, every parent’s nightmare. Adam picks at his Coventry Cathedral project in the hope of distraction whenever Emma insists he goes home. His father’s arrival from Cornwall brings a little air into this claustrophobic situation, distracting the increasingly angry Miriam with the story of his search for a better life back in 1960s America. Slowly but surely the family begins to understand that life will be different in future. All the old certainty has been undermined, shown to be an illusion, and now they must learn to live with the opposite.

Beginning in the traditional fashion with ‘once upon a time’ when Miriam is conceived – Adam tells us his own story, interspersing it with both his father’s and the history of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt in the city’s bombed ashes. One phone call throws all the cards in his world up into the air, the constant background hum of parental anxiety turned sharply up. It’s not long before guilt rears its head in the shape of genetic inheritance, augmented by the radio’s  litany of violence done to children in less fortunate countries. Moss’ writing is compassionate, sensitive and clear-eyed but she is careful to underpin Adam’s narrative with a wry humour, steering it well clear of the maudlin. She has a brilliantly sharp eye for characterisation. Adam and Emma are good middle-class parents who resist cries for junk food, carefully explain how the world works to their eight-year-old and tolerate the barbs of their fifteen-year-old. Both Rose and Miriam are beautifully caught at their particular ages: Rose’s incessant demands for a cat together with her resentment at the attention given to Miriam and Miriam’s political idealism, cloaked in an adolescent cynicism which hides a new-found vulnerability, ring out loud and true. This is not an easy subject to handle without becoming sentimental or melodramatic but Moss succeeds beautifully, presenting a nuanced portrait of a family going about their business, juggling the multitude of things that need to be juggled to keep the show on the road, suddenly thrown into a chasm of uncertainty with which they must learn to deal. If I have a quibble it’s that the Coventry Cathedral sections interrupted the narrative flow in the middle a little, but that’s a small criticism. Another triumph, then, and, with its medical theme, surely bound for an appearance on next year’s Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist, just as Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children did before it.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss: Adventures in Iceland

Cover imageI don’t read very much non-fiction, something of a yawning gap I know but there are always so many excellent novels lined up ready and waiting. When I do it tends to be short bursts of travel writing or biography and novelist Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea neatly combines the two.

Circumstances seemed to be right for the Moss family to spend some time living abroad so when Moss spots an advertisement for a lecturer in her field at Iceland’s National University she applies, gets the job and off they go. Having toured Iceland for five weeks as a student – an unusual destination but Moss says she has a fascination with what she calls  the ‘northerly isles’ – she has an idea of what to expect but is unprepared for the culture shock of living on an island which often feels like one big village. Iceland has a population of a mere 300,000. Temperatures plummet to a dangerous level in winter and it’s volcanic – remember when European airspace closed down thanks to an eruption on the island? Moss was there – no wonder it’s tightly knit. It’s also full of contradictions: unsurprisingly, it’s an insular community but the Icelandic word for stupid means one that has not travelled. Nearly all young Icelanders jump ship for a time but almost invariably return when they want to raise a family.

Moss manages to both entertain and enlighten. She’s often very funny on both her own befuddlement and the quirks of Icelanders while avoiding the ‘let’s laugh at the funny foreigners’ tricks that some writers indulge in.  She’s a curious and insightful observer, able to keep a straight face when talking to a woman who communicates with elves – and 100-metre-tall elves at that – while writing sensitively about the effects of the financial crisis on a proud people living in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a fascinating book and as gripping as any novel.