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