Recently qualified and newly wed, Dr Ally Moberley-Cavendish has a lot to adjust to as a wife and as a doctor in a women’s asylum. Can she and Tom survive a separation of months so soon after their marriage; is she right to stay behind with her ghosts as he sets sail for Japan?
Bodies of Light introduced the Moberley family: acclaimed artist Alfred; his deeply religious wife Elizabeth; and their two daughters – conscientious, nervy Ally, her life dominated by her mother’s social politics, and May, the headstrong younger sister. I was beguiled by it as a history of early feminism, social reform and the battle for women to be accepted at medical school; and put through the wringer by Ally’s educational and personal trials.
I was delighted to hear there would be a sequel and Signs for Lost Children does not disappoint. Where Bodies of Light took place over several years as Ally fought her way clear of her mother to stand on her own two feet; Signs for Lost Children covers the first year of Ally’s marriage – much of which she spends alone, as her new husband sets sail for Japan to train lighthouse engineers within weeks of their nuptials.
Part of my joy – as with her other books – is in Sarah Moss’s prose. She is a mistress of present tense narrative and of the emotional rollercoaster. Here Ally once again struggles with her own feelings of inadequacy as well as facing down the inevitable broadside of misogyny as one of the first women doctors (and one who has the gall not to focus on midwifery and paediatrics). She remains hag-ridden by imposter syndrome, her medical practice informed by her own struggles with mental health even while her confidence is destroyed by it.
Moss has thoroughly researched her history as usual; those who are not prepared for the horrors of the Victorian asylum (and it’s carefully handled here, but the implications are inescapable) may find this tough going. Moss has a gift for capturing place and atmosphere; I was appalled and fascinated in equal measure, and appreciative at every step of the way Moss continually put the practices under the microscope through Ally’s sympathetic eyes.
I also appreciated Ally’s personal journey – from diffident first steps to harrowing self-doubt to determined practice. It’s a very rewarding read for those who have followed since her first footsteps; I cheerfully admit to yelling at the page (Elizabeth Moberley really gets my goat) when Ally returned home to face her mother.
Ally’s chapters alternate with her husband Tom’s awkward stint as a foreign visitor to Japan. He is a cinnamon roll, easy to love; but as his story spun out I found myself less and less engaged. Tom falls in love with his perception of Japan – albeit barely understood, separated as he is by culture and language. While I appreciated the way the narrative is handled, elements of fairytale and unreality creeping in to reflect how divorced his experiences are from reality, I found far less to hang on to.
Except for the feelings. As Ally grapples with her career and her self-perception; Tom struggles with the creeping realisation that he doesn’t want to go home. Moss wrings out every ounce of emotion from their situation – it’s impossible to ignore that Ally would be better with the support of someone who loves her unconditionally by her side; but I love that she learns to stand on her own two feet. And I do feel for Tom and the unintentional treachery of his confused heart.
This is a book of quiet, slow personal journeys, of oblivious malice and unintentional harm, and of the strength it takes to rise above it all – and to make the future you dream of.