I really enjoyed reading Night Waking by Sarah Moss which told the story of Dr Anna Bennett, an academic living on the Scottish island of Colsay with her husband and young children, who sets out to uncover the mystery behind how the bones of an infant came to be buried in her garden. Her narrative is interspersed with letters written by May Moberley, a maternity nurse sent to the island to investigate the high infant mortality rate during the 1870s. ‘Bodies of Light’ is a very loose sequel which picks up the historical strand of the story focusing on other members of the Moberley family living in Manchester during the 1860s and 1870s. The novel is a coming-of-age tale of May’s older sister Ally who becomes one the first female students to read medicine in London. However, while their mother Elizabeth is a progressive social campaigner devoted to helping the destitute in the slums of Manchester, she is also a deeply repressed woman who offers no warmth at all towards her husband Alfred or her daughters.
‘Signs for Lost Children’ continues Ally’s story in the 1880s shortly after she marries engineer Tom Cavendish. She begins volunteering as a doctor at the Truro asylum in Cornwall while her husband travels to Japan to build lighthouses and the chapters alternate between their stories. However, their long separation begins to take its toll in ways that the couple did not foresee.
‘Bodies of Light’ and ‘Signs for Lost Children’ were both shortlisted in 2015 and 2016 respectively for the Wellcome Book Prize which is open to any work of fiction or non-fiction about some aspect of healthcare or medicine. In ‘Signs for Lost Children’, Moss has taken a few historical liberties in that no female doctors were known to be working in asylums during that era but her thoughtful exploration of the consequences of mental health issues is second to none in her depiction of an era when bouts of “hysteria” were poorly understood and even more poorly treated. The vivid descriptions of medical operations are not for the fainthearted and neither is the way in which Ally’s status as a woman and a doctor is constantly undermined by those around her. As is evident in her previous novel, Moss returns to themes centred around maternity as well as the treatment of women during the early suffrage movement and poverty more generally in Victorian Manchester.
‘Bodies of Light’ is a loose sequel to ‘Night Waking’ and it isn’t really necessary to have read Moss’s previous novel first. However, ‘Signs for Lost Children’ is a more direct continuation of Ally’s story and it is probably helpful to at least read ‘Bodies of Light’ beforehand, particularly in order to understand why Elizabeth behaves in the way that she does. She is the most interesting and complex character in both books and Moss’s portrait of her is nuanced from the very beginning, allowing the reader to understand why she inflicts such strict and terrifying punishments on her children.
Moss has often been described as one of the UK’s most underrated novelists. However, if she continues writing such compelling and original novels, then it is surely only a matter of time until she is not just shortlisted for major literary awards but also starts winning them and getting the widespread recognition she deserves. I am very much looking forward to reading her fifth novel ‘The Tidal Zone’ – a book set in the present day and unconnected to this particular series – which will be published in the UK next month.