The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016)

Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.

Rave reviews of Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone caught my attention and I decided I had to read it. I’ve read two of her earlier novels, Cold Earth, a stunning ghost story, and Bodies of Light, a mesmerizing historical novel. I enjoyed them very much and was pretty certain I would love The Tidal Zone as well. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I liked it but didn’t love it. I’m not exactly sure, why I didn’t warm to this ambitious book. It offers so much. Meditations on life and death, gender, politics, family life, illness, the NHS . . . I could go on.

It’s the story of a family that almost unravels when the heart of the 15-year-old daughter, Miriam, stops. Miriam survives the episode but has to stay at the hospital for a long time as it’s not clear what brought on this reaction. She seems to suffer from some type of allergy. Adam, a stay-at-home dad, spends most of his time at her side, only occasionally replaced by his overworked wife, a doctor, who works for the NHS.

Many reviewers called this a “state of the nation” novel and that’s accurate. It definitely looks at the way people live in Britain now. Or rather, the way middle-class, white people live in England. Adam’s a bit of a failed academic and is working on writing something about the Coventry cathedral. The book alternates between reflections on the cathedral, which was, along with most of the city, destroyed during WWII. Like Miriam’s incident, the stories that are told in these parts are about human frailty and the unpredictability of life. But they also help to illustrate the family history as Adam’s Jewish dad was born in the US. The family fled Europe during the war.

Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy. There is neither tragedy nor comedy in war, only disorder and harm.

While I didn’t warm to this book, I enjoyed many of its parts. This is a family of intellectuals who seem to love a good argument. The descriptions of family life are often hilarious. Miriam’s a great, great character.

Here’s  her answer to her dad’s question whether she’ll go with him to Coventry cathedral:

It’ll take more than coloured glass and old music to make me sign up to homophobia, misogyny and the grandfather of all patriarchal institutions.

She’s bright, very political and engaged. She will never let anyone get away with bullshit. It was so refreshing to read their repartees.

She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?

Obviously, this isn’t your every day family as Adam’s a stay-at-home dad. While it does sound like hard work at times and he makes huge efforts to ensure that the family always has clean clothes, nourishing, healthy meals and that the house is clean and tidy, we never hear it mentioned that he struggles. I found that interesting because I can’t remember every reading a novel about a stay-at-home mum who also was an academic and tried to get work done and it sounded so harmonious. I wonder if that was a conscious choice and if so, why. I remember that the mothers in Sarah Moss’ earlier books struggled quite a bit with motherhood.

As you see, there’s a lot to love here. So why didn’t I warm to this? The book had the misfortune of reminding me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. None of the characters is even remotely as obnoxious as those in Saturday, still, there’s a similarity. Probably because the characters both occupy the same social territory. Or maybe I didn’t warm to this because Sarah Moss tried hard to show us another side of her talent. While the other novels I read were very atmospheric and spoke to the senses, this one speaks purely to the mind and – depending on the reader – to the emotions. Since I had no emotional reaction to this, it spoke only to my mind, which wasn’t enough for me to love it.

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.

Sarah Moss: Cold Earth (2009)

Cold Earth

Last summer I read Michelle Paver’s excellent ghost story Dark Matter and Max pointed out in a comment that the description reminded him of Sarah Moss’ first novel Cold Earth. Both novels are set in the North, under extreme conditions and both use a similar technique. The protagonists write diaries and/or letters. In Cold Earth the story is told from six different subsequent points of view, while there is only one in Dark Matter.

Cold Earth is the story of an archeological dig, set in a remote part of Greenland. Six young people, under the supervision of one of them, start excavating the remains of a Norse society. Something has wiped out that society, a fact that unsettles our diggers early on. At the same time they are aware that a pandemic is spreading and communication with the outside world isn’t possible. They are not only afraid that their families and friends might die but that nobody will come and get them once the date for their departure arrives. If  that wasn’t enough already, one of the six young people, Nina, the only one who isn’t an archeologist but working on a PhD in literature, pretends that the site is haunted and shows signs of either severe trauma or delusion.

The story is told from the point of view of the six people. The first part, Nina’s part is the longest. She’s the one who reacts the most to the circumstances. She has weird dreams at night that seem to come directly from the past, she is certain that someone or something walks around the camp at night. The others react to that in many different ways. There are those who are affected and those who just find her a pain in the ass. But the letters or journal entries all show that whether they believe in the ghost theory or in the possibility that Nina’s going mad, they have a hard time coping. Some have come carrying a past loaded with grief and sorrow others are badly affected by the idea that the pandemic is killing off their families and friends.

The longer they stay, the colder it gets and they have to expect the worst, namely that nobody will come and get them and that they will run out of food and not be sufficiently prepared to face  the Arctic winter.

I’m sure if I hadn’t read Dark Matter before, I would have liked this better. The elements which are similar, the ghost story parts, are much more scary and convincing in Dark Matter, I even thought that Paver did a better job in using a ghosts story as a means to illustrate fragility of human existence, and the influence of extreme weather conditions and surroundings on people. I also liked the structure better. Cold Earth starts strongly with Nina’s point of view, which takes up almost a third of the book, but the subsequent chapters, narrated by the others are shorter and shorter, as if she’d run out of breath. Of course you could say she chose that approach to create tensions but I felt some parts were too short to be entirely satisfying. What is very well done in Sarah Moss’ book is how she includes the dimension of society. Paver focusses more on the individual, Moss more on society and groups. I found it impressive how she described how hellish the wrong company can be. I’m not exactly a gregarious person and if I choose company it really needs to be the right one. I could sympathize with Nina who felt she wasn’t only among strangers but among people who were even a tad hostile.

I guess it depends on personal preference whether you will like Dark Matter or Cold Earth better. I could relate more to  the idea of a lonely person thrown into an awful situation than to a group facing disaster. I’m glad I read them both, as they are both extremely good, I just loved one more. If, like me, you like extreme and well-captured settings, you shouldn’t miss either one of tem.

If you’re interested here is Max’s very detailed and insightful review.