Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children

Actually, I wanted to read the latest book by Sarah Moss The Tidal Zone, but my local library did not have it. Then I thought her non-fiction book about living in Iceland might be of interest, or her book about the clash between motherhood and an academic career Night Waking. But guess what? They didn’t have those either, so I picked up Signs for Lost Children instead, looked at the blurb and thought: pioneering women in medicine? Meiji Japan? hmmm, intriguing topics…

That’s what is so amazing about Sarah Moss: every single one of her books is very different and yet each one sounds fascinating in its own right. There are far too few writers nowadays who can surprise without disappointing you from book to book.

signsforlostchildrenSigns for Lost Children is a gendered history of discovery. Tom and Ally, the newly married couple at the start of the book, discover new worlds, both outside and within the relatively narrow confines of Victorian society. They also go on intense personal journeys, are forever changed and may not find their way back to one another. Just a few weeks after getting married, Tom sets off to a rapidly modernising Japan to build lighthouses, while Ally stays behind in Cornwall to work in a women’s asylum.

At first the scrupulously alternating chapters between his voice and her voice, Japan and England, felt somewhat belaboured, especially since there was a bit of time lag between them (the time it takes for a letter to travel between the two countries by ship, perhaps). Later on, I began to appreciate the parallel structure: it was like watching a tree grow into two separate trunks, yawning apart.

The chapters on Japan were, of course, a delight for anyone who has ever visited Japan, but had a lot to say about British Empire as well (or present-day expats in exotic locations). The observations about Western blindness to Japanese nuance and traditions are spot-on, and the firm insistence that the Japanese should adapt themselves to Western standards, for example, that their chefs should cook English meals (which they slaughter mercilessly) is very funny.

Mrs Senhouse apologises again for the dinner. It is so hard to explain to Japanese servants what is required.

Tom sets down his fork. The food indeed requires apology. ‘Perhaps a Japanese cook would be more competent in preparing Japanese food?’

She wrinkles her nose. ‘It is the slimy things one cannot abide. Rice, of course, and clear soup, but I cannot expect Mr Senhouse to do a day’s work on such pauper food.

He thinks of the jinrikisha men, and the men who carried stones up the rocks for the lighthouses, and the men on the mountain farms.

Senhouse is also giving up on what is probably tinned ham cooked in salty brown sauce with some inexplicably gluey vegetable admixture. ‘The Japanese constitution is a mystery.’

Tom himself starts out dreading the tea ceremony and ends up appreciating it, even bringing it back with him to England. Of course, this is Meiji Japan we are talking about, the period when Japan opened up to the rest of the world after several centuries of isolation. They caught up with Western technology remarkably quickly, to the point where they started producing fake traditional goods for the Western visitors to take home as souvenirs.

Meanwhile, Ally begins to suspect that the women who are locked up in the Truro asylum are driven mad by their family life, and find more respite in the hospital itself, despite the harsh conditions there and the unsympathetic nurses.

… if all the women in here who speak of indecent things, who recount endlessly obscene acts and unnatural couplings, are speaking from unhappy experience, then their madness may be perfectly reasonable. May be the inevitable response of a healthy mind to things that should not happen. And if that is the case, then the primary problem is not so much with the minds of some women as with the acts of some men. Older men, almost invariably. Men with power.

Ally herself is susceptible to the anxieties which haunt these women. Growing up with a kindly but absent father focused too much on his own artistic career, a mother who shows more concern and sympathy for the general ills of the world than her own daughter and a sister who committed suicide, she experienced her own nervous breakdown early on. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to find her way as a female doctor in a world which is not quite ready for them yet, where even the most kindly friends and relatives do not understand her need to be working with mad people.

Author photo from Granta Books website.
Author photo from Granta Books website.

But will Tom understand her when he returns from Japan? Long-distance relationships are never easy, but in that particular time and place it must have been harder still. The author steers clear of both the saccharine and the bitter in describing the reunion. Will they each, separately or jointly, find that ‘place of healing and hope for the future as well as a distaste for the past’, which Ally is trying to create for her ‘lunatic’ women? The proto-feminist storyline blends seamlessly with the cross-cultural dimension: ultimately, it’s all about keeping an open mind, being curious and forgiving about others.

An elegant novel, with understated prose which nevertheless burns lyrically intense at times. I will certainly be reading more of Sarah Moss … if ever I can find her. (And isn’t that a beautiful cover?)


39 thoughts on “Sarah Moss: Signs for Lost Children”

    1. I may have to do an inter-library loan. Sigh! And when I asked about some Beryl Bainbridge and Elizabeth Taylor books, they were in the reserve stock in the cellar. Clearly, not popular enough to warrant shelf space, while all the silly celebrity autobiographies are out there!

  1. What an interesting approach to telling a story, Marina Sofia! Those alternating stories really can convey a broader perspective, but only if they’re done deftly. I’m especially interested in the commentary on, and attitudes towards, Japan. Such an interesting look at culture.

    1. I’m not sure if this is the best book to start with as an introduction to the author (it was more a case of ‘only book I could find’) but I’ve heard very good reports on some of her other books, including a non-fiction one.

  2. Yes, the cover is certainly beautiful. I came to know of Sarah Moss through her latest book – The Tidal Zone. It was an emotional and wonderful read. I hope you will get your hands on a copy soon. After I read the book I wanted to read everything by Sarah Moss.

    This book is on my TBR. I gather you have already visited Japan so the book feels more real to you? I will be reading this one after I finish Night Waking by Moss. I have heard that is an excellent book as well. Great review.

  3. The Tidal Zone is fantastic – I’ve a copy if you want to borrow it? Happy to post it. I’ve also got Signs for Lost Children on my TBR, and am very keen for it.

    1. What a generous offer, thank you! I have to admit I may have ordered another of her books today from the second-hand marketplace of a certain online retailer… just couldn’t wait when I saw that nothing else by this author was available in the whole of my borough.

      1. Haha, don’t worry! Ordering secondhand on Amazon doesn’t really count as Amazon, IMO. Do let me know if you’d like me to post it anyway—my email address is on the site somewhere, I think, and you can send me your address.

  4. I wrote about Bodies of Light, which I largely enjoyed, on my blog last year – my library had it in stock, but not on display! Have still to get round to this one, set in the town where I live, so even more of an incentive to read it…

    1. I assume you mean the Cornwall part of the story rather than the Japan one? Although that mountain village that Tom and his interpreter visit in Japan sounds so beguiling… fox spirit and all.

    1. I’d seen some reviews here and there, but only amongst readers who tend to like more unusual things rather than the obvious bestsellers. So that was a plus point.

  5. Moss has cropped up quite a bit across the blogosphere over the twelve months or so, particularly with Bodies of Light and the one you were searching for in the first place, The Tidal Zone. Glad to hear that you liked this – the cross-cultural aspect sounds right up your street.

    1. Yes, I’d been coming across her name more and more, and it was particularly the gender roles which are at the forefront of pretty much every one of her books which attracted me. I’ve just ordered Night Waking (an earlier novel of hers) – couldn’t resist.

  6. Thank you for bringing this author’s work to life with this review – I’ve seen her books around but hadn’t ever picked one up. I do like the sound of this one’s alternate narrative to build a bigger picture but one that is miles apart rather than growing closer as is the norm for this device.

    1. After finishing, I realised it was probably best that the chapters alternated, although I have seen it done in sections – there was an organic feel about it. If you do get around to reading this, I do recommend it – although, according to some reviewers, The Tidal Zone is her best work yet.

  7. Your comment that the book seemed belaboured to begin with interested me, as that’s exactly how I felt about Bodies of Light but like here that feeling didn’t last and instead the book had a lasting impression on me. I have been interested in reading all of Moss’s work since, especially this one on account of the Japanese link. She’s an understated and underrated writer, I think (I also want to read her book about Iceland!).

    1. From what I hear, Bodies of Light is the most similar to this novel, so I think that too hinges chapters from alternative points of view. I am currently reading another book which tries a little too hard to be poetic, so I really appreciate Moss’s understated style, even though I questioned initially some of her structural decisions.

  8. That’s what is so amazing about Sarah Moss: every single one of her books is very different and yet each one sounds fascinating in its own right.

    She’s lucky to be able to get away with it. Publishers, and the book trade in general, tend to get pissed off if authors don’t establish a template and thereafter stick to it. Me, I like it when authors do something different each time, so I’ve made a note to look out for Moss’s books.

    1. Yes, it’s a sad fact that publishers (and readers often, too, but far less often than publishers think) want to typecast an author and have the same reliable fodder from them again and again. I do like authors who are unafraid to experiment. People change and grow throughout their lives and surely their books should reflect that.

  9. You had me at the mention of Cornwall 😉 Seriously, this sounds like a book I would love – an elegantly-written, epistolary novel touching on mental illness and on the experiences of women, focusing on two area which fascinate me in a time of real interest. How can I not want to read this! I’ve noted your advice to others, MarinaSofia, that this is perhaps not the novel to start with from this author, but I think it must be the one for me. And the range of subjects in her other books… I’m rather worried at the level of expectation I’m generating here 😉

  10. Japan thread intrigues but I’m especially interested in Ally’s experiences. Another for the TBR and there’s a new Book Group in Goodreads: The Mad Women Book Club so I’ll post your review in there too.

  11. Very much enjoyed Names for the Sea although I’ve not read any of her fiction but she writes beautifully and in a very engaging way. It’s only a matter of time before I pick up another title of hers.

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