Sarah Moss: Bodies of Light (2014)

Bodies of Light

In January I read Sarah Moss’ first novel Cold Earth (here is the review). I liked it but had some minor reservations. I wasn’t sure how good a writer she really was. After having read her latest book, Bodies of Light, I think it’s safe to say that she’s evolved from a promising writer to an accomplished one.

I didn’t look at the author’s name when I saw the book at the book shop the other day. What caught my attention was the beautiful cover that reminded me of a Victorian wallpaper. As soon as I opened it, I discovered that they had used the same endpaper inside. When I read the blurb, I saw how fitting this was, as Sarah Moss has set her third novel in Victorian Manchester and London. This might not have been enough for me to buy the book, but I started browsing and what struck me was how often colors and light were mentioned. I did something I don’t do that often; I bought the book and started reading it right away.

The novel did keep its promise; it has a lot of a William Morris wallpaper. The descriptions and the writing are gorgeous. But what is really arresting is the combination and range of topics.

Bodies of Light tells the story of two generations of women. Elizabeth is married to the designer and painter Alfred Moberley. Beauty is most important to him. He pays attention to color and light, to fabrics and interior decoration, to every single detail in a furniture, wallpaper or painting. Elizabeth is quite different. She likes it sober. She doesn’t want to wear expensive, colorful clothes. Her mother taught her that she has to be modest at all times because there are so many poor women who have nothing. This strict, severe upbringing, in which every single minute is dedicated to helping the poor, has turned Elizabeth into a joyless creature. And she’s ill-equipped for motherhood. She hates being pregnant and once the girl is born she hates her and can hardly be forced to take care of her. On the other hand, her mother taught her to despise the ways of the rich. A nanny is out of the question. Whenever her husband, who is a kind man, wants to take care of Ally and pampers the child, Elizabeth tells him off. It’s easy to understand why this marriage isn’t a happy one.

May is born after Ally. While she will be treated in very strict ways as well, she will not be abused. Abuse is the ugly secret in the Moberly household. Ally is her mother’s mirror and instrument. Her mother mishandles and punishes her and forces her to become successful. What she calls strict is nothing bud thinly veiled sadism.

In spite of this – or because of this – Ally will become one of the first women doctors. When it’s time for her to study, she will leave Manchester and go to live in London. She’s learned from an early age that others have less, that women are mistreated and it seems natural for her to dedicate her life to the cause of women. But her family, especially her mother, looms like a dark shadow over her head. The question is – will she be able to free herself and find happiness?

The summary may seem gloomy and the parts dedicated to Ally’s upbringing, the many cruelties she had to endure on a daily basis, made me choke, but the book contains so much beauty. I liked how complex all the characters are. Even Ally’s mother, Elizabeth. She’s doing a lot of good, helping the poor selflessly, at the same time, she unleashes her sadistic impulses on her daughter. It’s something that we hear occasionally. A person famous for his/her altruism, is a tyrant, bully or even a sadist at home.

A major topic is women’s fight for the right to higher education, their fight to become doctors. The scenes at the hospital are quite drastic. Ally specializes in gynaecology at first but then discovers her interest in psychiatry.

At times it was shocking to see that, while we’ve come a long way, women still fight for many of the things they fought for in the 19th Century. Conflicting emotions about motherhood, for example, are still more or less taboo.

Bodies of Light is a remarkable book. The writing is taut and stylish and full of luminous descriptions. The topics range from art to motherhood, from medicine to women’s history, from psychiatry to abuse and, finally, to healing. The greatest accomplishment however, is that the opposing themes and characters of the novel are mirrored in the writing. The writing is at times pithy, at times lavish. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking book from a very assured writer. We can look forward to her next books.

23 thoughts on “Sarah Moss: Bodies of Light (2014)

  1. Beautiful review, Caroline! I loved ‘Cold Earth’ and now after reading you review, I want to read ‘Bodies of Light’. It is wonderful to know that Sarah Moss keeps getting better and better 🙂 I love the themes that the book covers. I would love to know more about how Ally gets on in the world. As a pioneer in everything she did, it must have been exciting and hard for her. I found your comment on people who are altruistic in public, being tyrants at home quite interesting. I think that is true in many cases. I love the book’s cover – it is so beautiful.

    • Thanks, Vishy. This is one of the cases in which I’m glad I have the hardcover. It really is a stunning cover and it’s so rare they do endpapers.
      It was as fascinating as it was beautiful. I loved the attention to the colors and the light. I think you’d like it.

  2. Wonderful, isn’t it, when you know that your appreciation of an author is sealed. I rarely read historical books so it’s unlikely I’ll read this, but I like the idea of using the cover as endpaper. Books certainly as beautiful as they used to be –although some publishers seem to be trying.

    • I was glad to see how assured she has become. I haven’t read her second yet, mybe it was already clear then, but this one is certainly very good.
      Since it was a book about the Victorian era and about a designer as well, it was apt to choose this paper. Most books are not very nice.

  3. I still have her Night Waking to read. I’ve seen other good reviews of this one, and now yours. So it’s safe to say that this is definitely a book I’ll be looking out for.

  4. Great review Caroline.

    Good observation about just how socially unpopular are thoughts and feelings concerning women’s negative emotions and beliefs about children and motherhood are. I have seen this firsthand as I know a few women who do express ideas along these lines. Things have changes in that such things can be expressed openly by those who do not fear social scorn. However, the same threads of what I would label as intolerance are still out there.

    • Thank, you Brian.
      It’s a fascinating book. I have no children but I could imagine, it’s very hard to experience that scorn. It must be quite shocking. Maybe even more so now because we have a choice and can say “no” to having children. During the Victorian the women were forced, so that gave an additional strain. But I know it’s still seen as unnatural when a woman doesn’t want children and even more when she struggles.
      I feel for them.

  5. After just talking about colors and a recent interest in reading more about art (from my visits to museums in TX) makes me want to pick this up right now. It sounds wonderful–all the better that she has written the book so well. I love books that transports the reader to another place and such interesting lives. I think I must break down and buy this (very bad as it is not yet published here and from what I can tell is still in hardcover….). It sounds like quite a leap from subject matter to subject matter between books, too! (Which always impresses me with an author–who can pull them off each time).

    • In this case it’s worth having a hardcover as it’s a pretty book. I loved the writing, loved the many details. It was also interesting to see how she captured the influence of both parents.
      I think her first two novels are quite close, and I was pleased to see that she moved away from the northern setting. It’s seems she’s writing a sequel to this one. I’m not sure what to make of that.
      I hope you’ll like it as much as I did.

  6. Great review, Caroline. What an interesting dichotomy with the beauty and abuse. I hadn’t heard of this author before, but now I’m intrigued.
    Unfortunately, there are still too many people who shouldn’t have become parents.

    • Thanks, Carole.
      I couldn’t agree more. She’s an author well-worth discovering. I’m not so keen on historical novels unlesds they are literary and this one certainly is.

  7. This sounds right up my street. I like historical fiction but so often it’s rather dreary and by-the-numbers writing, but this sounds really good. The issue of Victorian motherhood is interesting to me. Those poor women being constantly pregnant is something I find quite distressing. Their lives as ‘people’ effectively ended when they got married and started to have children and there was no way out for them. It’s not surprising to me that some of them disliked their children. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention, and the fact that it’s a beautiful edition is a bonus!

    • “By-the numbers-writing” is a great way to put it. A lot of historical fiction is just that, I agree. She’s at the literary end of the spectrum and I thought hse wrote admirably well.
      I also loved the combination of themes and I’m preytt sure you’ll like that too.
      I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on this.

  8. Thanks for this. I was a bit concerned when her Night Walking sounded so very similar to Cold Earth that she might be a one-trick pony, but clearly not. I’m actually more interested in reading this now than I am in Night Walking, which I have. This sounds more accomplished, more interesting.

    Have you read Charlotte Perinks Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper? Having references to wallpaper in a novel set in the 19th Century about women having to fight for their independence can’t be a coincidence. There’s a review at mine if you don’t know it, and it’s free online so easy to get hold of.

    • I was thinking of you while reading this because I remembered you mentioned her first two books are so similar. But she’s got more to offer and I’m glad I read it. I’m not so sure what to think of a sequel.
      What a very great observation – about The Yellow Wallpaper. I’ve read it a long time ago – and forgot about it. I agree, that can’t be a coincidence.
      I would be intrested to see how she writes about motherhood in Night Waking. There seems to be a connection with this one, in that regard.
      You could always argued, she put a lot into a short book, but I found this one very well executed. the writing is tight. I’d be interested to read your thoughts.

  9. I’m intrigued and you know I’m always interested in books about women’s condition. I hope it’s better than Remarkable Creatures.

    I agree with you, women can’t really mention that raising children isn’t the continuous bliss they advertise in magazines.
    In France, I think it would be hard to say “I don’t want any children” and not be stared at with incredulous eyes. (for women and for men, btw)

    PS: I highly recommend La Virevolte by Nancy Huston.

    • You know I liked Remarkable Creatures but I understand why you didn’t. But don’t worry, this is very different. Much more literary.
      I always hear so many women complain in secret. I think it would be so much easier if they could just admit – it’s difficult.
      I’ll have to look for La Virevolte.

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