Author: Catherine Brezicki

Signs for Lost Children Book Cover Signs for Lost Children
Sarah Moss
In Store Now!

One of the best parts of working at Ben McNally’s is being able to introduce customers to books and authors they would not necessarily choose for themselves. I discovered Sarah Moss last year and ordered one of her books from the UK, which was - at the time - the only place to find them. Then one of our bookstore’s favourite publishers, Europa Editions, came along and decided to issue a North American edition of what I consider to be Moss’s best work of fiction, Signs for Lost Children.


The novel follows the lives of a newly married couple living in England in the 1880s: Dr. Ally Moberley Cavendish and her husband, architect Tom Cavendish. While Tom leaves his home on a professional trip to Japan, Ally starts her position as a doctor in a women’s mental institution, The Truro Asylum. Both characters narrate their own journey as they delve into the worlds of their careers and, inevitably, their own minds. Both struggle with the loneliness these worlds carry, giving them the freedom to explore themselves, with dramatic results.


The most compelling part of Signs for Lost Children is Moss’s writing. It is rhythmic and gentle, despite dealing with difficult and serious subject matter.


At the asylum, Ally attempts to combat the prevailing stereotype of female physicians as incompetent and emotional, despite reservations about her own abilities and mental health. Pressure from her mother - a paradoxical figure who goes to great lengths to help the poorest and most vulnerable members of society while condemning her daughter’s choice to waste her life by doing the same - pushes Ally further into the darkness of her mind. Among the patients of the asylum, Ally finds sadness and beauty, butchered by Victorian England’s strict social norms. Her struggle is exacerbated as she tries to balance her desire to assist these women with her new role as a wife with the traditional domestic duties she feels she is meant to master. This internal sparring match soon proves to be Ally’s most traumatic obstacle.


In Japan, Tom is introduced to a new way of life, one where folklore and centuries of tradition seem out of place in a country that is progressing at a rapid pace in terms of modern technologies and fresh ideas. He, too, feels a sense of isolation, away from his new bride and everything that is familiar to him at home. His travels take him to the most rural areas of Japan, which are starkly juxtaposed to the bright and bustling cities. His attempts to cling to an anchor, the memory of Ally at home in England, are undermined when he questions how close their connection really is and whether it will survive the distance.


The most compelling part of Signs for Lost Children is Moss’s writing. It is rhythmic and gentle, despite dealing with difficult and serious subject matter. Her words flow with a grace and an elegance that is unusual for contemporary writers, but she manages to keep the pace of her novel at a steady climb, building tension and easily sweeping the reader into the world of her characters. In Japan, Tom remembers his home country, and “wants to see Britain from behind Makoto’s eyes, to see the strange and unnatural things to which he himself and everyone he knows is forever blind. The bleakness of the moors, where heather ruffles like water under the wind, Farmhouse of grey stone below grey-green hills. The pulsating verdure of a hedgerow in spring, bluebells scribbled purple in the shade of budding trees. The ancient forts and earthworks that form a chain across the uplands of the north.” Reading passages like these is such a treat that I became annoyed when something in my own life interrupted my enjoyment of the book and looked for any excuse to turn my attention back to its pages.


To give readers fair warning, this novel is the final chapter of a trilogy involving the life of Ally Moberley, her family, and the lasting effect of both on subsequent generations. An article in the The Guardian newspaper, written at the time of the book’s UK release in 2015, claimed that reading Moss’s final novel of the Moberley trilogy without reading the first two was detrimental to the understanding of Ally’s backstory and would take away from the experience of reading the book. I could not disagree more. I read the book without even knowing it had two preceding stories and found that the mystery surrounding Ally’s life before her marriage to Tom added to the novel’s foggy Victorian atmosphere, where the only information we have as readers is what the characters tell us. I’ve always thought that the best books leave readers with more questions than answers. Reading Ally’s story in reverse was like breaking through a wall in an old home, with each book revealing hidden parts of the past that added to my understanding of the house as a whole.


Signs for Lost Children will take you on a journey that stretches from Falmouth to Kyoto, with two compelling, imperfect characters as your guides.


(Note: The two previous books in this trilogy by Sarah Moss are Night Waking and Bodies of Light, both available from Granta Books in the UK, and can be ordered in store.)


Comparative titles: Anne Enright, The Green Road; Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent; Lucy Wood, Weathering

The Trees Book Cover The Trees
Ali Shaw
In Store Now!

In a world not unlike our own, oil sands, fracking, and a depleting ozone layer indicate a constant assault on the natural gifts that the human race takes for granted; gifts that people care about less than their next Facebook post and perfectly Instagrammable cup of coffee. What would happen if this world decided to fight back?

This is the world of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, where – overnight – the people of Britain find themselves under attack by Mother Nature and her elements that once provided shelter and sustenance. The trees show no mercy, shooting up through homes and their residents with wild abandon, taking over the landscape and cities without regard for the people inhabiting the smallest cottage or the grandest castle. Roads are replaced with forests, animals are free to roam and hunt in their extended woods, and people suddenly find themselves at the bottom of the food chain.

The story follows the journeys of Adrien (a rather hapless and hopeless man who feels he has been abandoned by his wife), and nature-lover Hannah and her technology-obsessed teenaged son Seb. This quirky group of characters all have their own motive for setting out among the ruins of civilization, but they are drawn together by the common goal of surviving in a world that makes most man versus nature themes look like a walk in the park. Along the way, they encounter Hiroko, a young girl from Japan whose unique survivalist talents appeal to the group, but whose stark independence and refusal to get close to anyone makes the others wary of her true nature.

The process is violent, unrelenting, and deadly; the writing is stunning.

I admit that post-apocalyptic novels are not often found on my reading list but, within the first few pages of Shaw’s writing, I was hooked. He describes the initial attack, where “The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.” The process is violent, unrelenting, and deadly; the writing is stunning.

This is not Shaw’s first voyage into literary fantasy: his previous book The Girl With the Glass Feet follows Ida, who finds herself slowly turning into glass from the feet up, and The Man Who Rained, in which Elsa discovers a town where the weather can come to life. His themes are reminiscent of fairy tales, but with richer language and deliciously complex and compelling characters. The Trees challenges the reader to look at the state of humanity, of our natural world, and how the two are in constant battle with each other. We are asked to question our own response to a world of chaos, where humans are suddenly no longer in charge and where animals and organisms and dark forests are only the beginning of the troubles to come. Would our true nature be revealed, when our man-made laws are replaced with those that existed thousands of years ago? How many of us would quickly forget what is right and wrong, what is good and evil, when there’s no one left to tell us the difference?

The Trees is one of the best books I’ve read this year and is now one of my favourites. I devoured every page and on several occasions I flipped back to sections that were particularly powerful and haunting. I find myself walking through Riverdale Park a little faster now, and with a new sense of trepidation.

“And out of sight, on the highest of branches and in the most secret of hollows, stranger creatures went about their business.”

Comparative titles: Cormac McCarthy, The Road; Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

ali-shawAli Shaw grew up in Dorset and graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Literature. He has since worked as a bookseller and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. His first novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, won the Desmond Elliot Prize, was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. He is also the author of The Man Who Rained.