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.
Signs 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.
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?)