Tag Archives: Signs for Lost Children

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.

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.

Books to Look Out For in July 2016: Part 1

Cover imageBack from a week in the wilds of Herefordshire with a look at what’s ahead in the July publishing schedules. No contest as to which book should begin this post for me. Sarah Moss has left the nineteenth-century setting of Bodies of Light and its sequel Signs for Lost Children, leap-frogging the twentieth century to land in the present day with The Tidal Zone. Shockingly, Adam is contacted by his fifteen-year-old daughter’s school to be told that she has collapsed for no apparent reason and has stopped breathing. ‘The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Moss’s last two novels, both shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, but I’ve no doubt she’ll match their excellence with this one.

Carrying on the family theme, Mary Gaitskill’s Mare – her first novel for some time – sees Ginger, a forty-seven-year-old recovering alcoholic, trying to persuade her reluctant new husband to adopt a child. They compromise, joining an organisation that sends poor city kids to the country for a few weeks but soon Ginger has become entranced by eleven-year-old Velveteen Vargas who they have welcomed into their comfortable upstate New York home, inviting her to visit whenever she likes. ‘Mary Gaitskill has created a devastating portrait of the unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings’ say the publishers. I haven’t had much luck with Gaitskill’s work in the past but this sounds an interesting premise

Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours also explores bonds that can form in highly emotive circumstances. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.

This first batch of July goodies ends with a writer whose novels – rather like Mary Gaitskill’s – I’veCover image failed to get on with in the past but the synopsis is wacky enough to make this one worth investigating. In Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Professor Solete has bequeathed his Theory of Everything to Eliade Jenks, a scruffy waitress who the rest of his circle look down their sniffy Oxford noses at. Unfortunately, the manuscript can’t be found so Eliade sets out to track it down. Now comes the interesting bit as, according to the blurb, she ‘falls down a rabbit-hole of metaphysical possibility. From a psychotropic tea party to the Priests of the Quantum Realm, she trips her way through Solete’s wonderland reality and, without quite meaning to, bursts open the boundaries of her own’ which suggests to me that it could either be fascinating or backfire horribly. The novel comes illustrated by Oly Ralfe.

As ever, a click on any title that catches your eye will take you to a fuller synopsis. More to follow but not before a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post later this week…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 2

Cover imageTwo of May’s second batch of paperbacks made it on to my 2015 ‘books of the year’ list, my favourite of which was Belinda McKeon’s Tender which I’d hoped to see on the Bailey’s Prize longlist. Catherine and James meet in Dublin in 1997 and almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone’s convinced they’re a couple. When James tells Catherine he’s gay, she basks in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. Then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel ends in 2012 with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one.

There’s a good deal of compassion in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory after one thriller too many for me. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Like so many of his generation, her father returned from the First World War a changed man, unable to show the affection Amory craves. Her Uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which leads her across the world. Boyd is a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences. A fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

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Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children follows on from her previous novel, 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. Lonely and still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall. 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, forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. It’s a beautifully executed novel which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time. Shame about that jacket, though. The hardback edition’s lacked the female figure which appears to be stuck-on.

I’ve not read either of the next two titles. Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home is about the tenants of a Brooklyn brownstone – each very different from the other and each challenged in some way – who come together when their home is threatened. It’s billed as ‘a poignant story of how a community is built and torn apart, and how when lives interweave a beautiful and unusual tapestry is made’ which could be interpreted as sentimental schlock but it’s an attractive premise and I’ve enjoyed novels based on apartments blocks as communities before.

Cover imageMy last choice for May is Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City which follows four Londoners –an asylum seeker, a self-made millionaire, a recently widowed woman and a young journalist – ‘each inhabitants of the same city, where the gulf between those who have too much and those who will never have enough is impossibly vast’, apparently. An ‘inexcusable act’ uncovers connections between these four in what could be a nice bit of state of the nation fiction. We’ll see. And, once again, the hardback jacket was so much more attractive

That’s it for May. A click on the first three titles will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and to Waterstones website for the last two. And if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here. Hardbacks are here and here.

My 2015 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logo 2015Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

Academy Street Cover imageCover image

       Academy Street                            Weathering                      A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover imageOur Souls at NightTender

   The Mountain Can Wait              Our Souls at Night                           Tender

Cover imageThe Lives of Women1004

        A God in Ruins                           The Lives of Women                          10:04

Cover imageCover imageCover image

         Some Luck                            The Lightning Tree               Signs for Lost Children

 

I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: What Ally and Tom did next

Cover imageSarah 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.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 2

Cover imageTopping my wish list for this second July selection is Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children billed as the third part of a loosely linked trilogy which began with Night Waking. Bodies of Light, the second instalment, appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine. This one picks up Ally and Tom’s story from there. Newly married they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum and Tom builds lighthouses in Japan. Bodies of Light was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m particularly eager for this one.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was a huge bestseller in Germany, apparently. It’s about Andreas who arrives in the Austrian Alps as a small boy and stays there for the rest of his life, leaving just once to fight in the Second World War.The publishers have somewhat ambitiously compared it to Stoner. If it’s only half as good as John Williams’ rediscovered gem it will be well worth your time.

Paula McGrath’s Generation has a much wider stretch covering eighty years, three generationsCover image and three continents. Discontented with her life in Ireland, Aine takes her six-year-old daughter to an organic farm near Chicago. Things don’t go quite as planned and the events of that summer will have far-reaching consequences. It’s billed as ‘a short novel that contains a huge amount’, a neat little description that snagged my attention.

Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House could go either way. It’s a re-imagining of the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Lidell which gives the novel an intriguing edge although you may feel that Alice has been over exposed given the brouhaha around Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice earlier this year. I’ve yet to read that but the two could well be complementary.

Cover imageMy last choice for July is an uncharacteristic one for me but it’s by an author I’ve banged on about ceaselessly – at least some readers may think so – since the publication of his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’d love to tell you that there’s a new Nickolas Butler novel in the offing but sadly that’s not to be. Instead his collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire, is to be published this summer and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

That’s it for July hardbacks. If you missed the first part you can find it here and a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis.