Family Stories and Folktales: Sarah Moss’s Fiction Digs Deep

In an early scene from Sarah Moss’s newest novel, Ghost Wall, the teenage narrator notes one of many logical holes in her family’s unconventional vacation: “Within days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing.” Silvie and her parents have joined a university archaeology class to reenact Iron Age life in the Northumberland countryside, but even as they return to an earlier era, they’re making their own contemporary marks on the landscape. She rarely dares to point such details out, however, especially in the presence of her father, a bus driver who independently studies the pre-Roman history of Britain.

Of course, that description itself makes little sense; modern concepts of “Britain” and “Britishness” have little in common with their ancient counterparts, as the archaeology professor condescends to remind Silvie’s father during a discussion of Hadrian’s Wall. “Dad didn’t like this interpretation,” she observes. “He wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Silvie’s asides gently illustrate the impossibility of experiencing the Iron Age through present-day camping: she and her family continue to use toothbrushes and tampons; they wear uncomfortable tunics with no historical backing other than the assumption that Iron Age people must have been uncomfortable; they gather food in a landscape entirely different from that of the ancient Britons, with little of the knowledge they would have possessed. At one point, Silvie sullenly thinks that if they wanted to get truly technical, men like her father and the professor wouldn’t even have lived to their current ages.

Moss’s simultaneously taut and supple writing allows for many truths to coexist in the narrative. Silvie recognizes the absurdity of their undertaking, but also that there’s nothing absurd about wanting a closer connection to nature—she can grumble, but she’ll appreciate the glowing strawberries along the way. And her father’s instinct to select the elements of history that support his chosen narrative, although transparent and destructive in his case, hardly makes him unique. Humanity as a whole can’t resist telling stories in a sometimes futile, sometimes noble attempt to frame life, to somehow contain it.

Ghost Wall, published on Jan. 8 by FSG, is a tense, nimble novel. But given that it’s Moss’s seventh book, and only the first to be released by a major U.S. publisher (two of her earliest were released in lovely editions by Counterpoint Press), American readers could be forgiven for having overlooked this eloquent British writer. Her backlist includes five other novels—Cold Earth (2009), Night Waking (2011), Bodies of Light (2014), Signs for Lost Children (2015), and The Tidal Zone (2016)—as well as a memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012), recounting her year teaching in Reykjavik.

For Adam, the narrator of The Tidal Zone, the story he tells himself is that his daughter will be all right. Miriam, age 16, collapses with no warning at school, and doctors can’t determine whether or not it will happen again. “It was important to tell people,” Adam reflects, part frantic, part despondent. “To let people know that this can happen: your child’s body can stop. Stop breathing, stop beating … I needed to tell people that the world was not as they believed it to be.” A stay-at-home father, Adam struggles to return to the cycles of everyday life now that he understands the certainty of those cycles to be illusion; as long as Miriam lives, they can never be sure that she’ll stay alive. Moss’s portrait of parenthood is equally tender and blunt, with Adam both cherishing and ruing the endless laundry, cooking, and pick-ups that define his life as a father.

Relationships between parents and children feature prominently in most of Moss’s work, and even the best of these relationships are never idealized. Night Waking is a particularly honest look at the contradictory emotions experienced by parents of young children, with Anna (another first-person narrator) attempting to raise two boys and reenergize her stalled career without any meaningful support from her husband. At one point she openly admits, “I don’t like motherhood and you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Love is not enough, when it comes to children. Bad luck.” Snippets of Moss’s memoir, Names for the Sea, although lacking this kind of pessimism, echo her characters’ struggles, like her offhand mention that she hasn’t visited Iceland’s National Gallery because she’s “vicariously traumatized by [her husband’s] account of trying to take the children there on a day when they didn’t like each other.” Parenthood means nothing is simple anymore—sleeping, preparing to leave the house, finding time to work. For every adorable interaction with your child, there’s an infuriating one.

We see the other side of this dynamic in Bodies of Light, her first foray into historical fiction (and, along with its sequel, Signs for Lost Children—her only novels in third person). Here we inhabit the perspective of a girl who knows that her mother has never enjoyed raising her. Growing up in 1860s Manchester, Ally fears her mother’s tight-lipped displeasure and fanatical austerity. Through some fate of personality, her sister, May (whose letters appear as historical artifacts in Night Waking), remains untouched by this same disapproval, even as Ally strives for the love and affirmation she’ll never be given. This is my favorite book from Moss; as insightful and funny as her contemporary work is, her Neo-Victorian novels showcase how feathery her authorial touch can be. Signs for Lost Children, the richest and most complex of her books, continues Ally’s story after she becomes one of Britain’s first female doctors, and offers one of the most generous passages I’ve ever read of a child reassessing a parent. When her friend, Annie, claims that “the politics of women’s pay” doesn’t absolve Ally’s mother of parental negligence, Ally mentally replies:
There is no separation between what Annie calls the politics of women’s pay and the formation of women’s minds. Mamma was trained to philanthropy, not to a professional life. Mamma was taught to set no price or value on her own time and effort, to understand her own labours merely as the justification of her existence … It is not as if Mamma had the choices, or indeed the Dutch rubber device, available to Ally. Mamma also is a creature of circumstance, of history and location, as are we all. Mamma works, Ally sees, because she does not believe that she deserves to live.
Signs for Lost Children is also a novel of separation, with Tom, Ally’s new husband, traveling for temporary engineering work in Japan. Their early longing for each other slowly transitions to remoteness, and Tom grapples with the foreigner’s paradox: feeling gauche and childlike in a new culture at the same time that he experiences a growing estrangement from his own. Clearly, Moss’s time in Iceland, and the probing, self-deprecating way she frames her own foreignness, filter into her fiction. The same can be said for her fascination with cultures of the north Atlantic. In addition to her Icelandic memoir, and her academic nonfiction on Arctic exploration, Night Waking, is set in the Hebrides, and her debut, Cold Earth, takes place on an archaeological dig in Greenland.

These isolated locations appear by turns peaceful and forbidding, both graced and haunted by their histories. This is never truer than in Cold Earth, where an international team assembles for a four-week dig and begins sensing strange forces around their campsite. Reports of an epidemic in the wider world leave them worried they’ll be stranded with winter approaching, making this the most suspenseful of Moss’s backlist. But it’s the musings on the uncertainties of archaeology that shine in this otherwise uneven novel. “Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue there’s less slippage reading words than land,” claims a lit student on the dig. “It does have a scientific grounding, you know,” counters another character. “There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”

History, legends, folktales, family stories—these slippery, inescapably human constructs form the spine of Moss’s work. Therein lies one of the brilliant aspects of her writing: she herself feels driven to create stories, to capture life in narratives, even as she deconstructs this same drive in her characters. Ghost Wall, in its artistry and timeliness, is the perfect place to start. Here’s hoping that its publication will bring more readers on this side of the pond to the rest of her cerebral, moving work.

A Quick Guide to the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

The winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize and the Baileys Prize) will be announced on June 6. Since 1996, the award has recognized the best English-language novel by a woman published in the U.K. in the previous year, and it has steadily built a distinguished lineup of winners (including Marilynne Robinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver, Ali Smith, and Lionel Shriver). Amongst these celebrated voices, several debut authors have found their careers kickstarted by the prize—it was largely responsible for putting Eimear McBride on the map, and Madeline Miller and Téa Obreht also won for their first novels.

So it’s appropriate that this year’s shortlist of six (whittled down from a longlist of 16) consists of three established and three debut authors (Elif Batuman, Imogen Hermes Gowar, and Jessie Greengrass). I hope this guide helps you find a couple books among them that speak to you.

The 2018 shortlist:

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
The Basics: A sedate series of vignettes following the daily life of Selin, a college freshman in the mid-1990s who questions the foundations of language, navigates the confusing new territory of love by email, and finds herself teaching English in a Hungarian village over the summer.
Key Quote: “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time—the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”
Read if You Like: Campus novels, deadpan humor, or stories that capture the rhythms of everyday life.
My Take: This is a witty, compassionate look at how youth can trap people into being simultaneously smart and shallow, and Batuman’s observational humor perfectly captures the casual absurdity of simple interactions.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
The Basics: Set in 1780s London, the novel opens with a merchant named Jonah Hancock as one of his captains returns with the news that he sold one of Hancock’s ships in exchange for what appears to be a small, mummified mermaid. To try to recoup his losses, Mr. Hancock begins selling tickets to the public, leading him to a fateful meeting with the vivacious Angelica Neal—a high-class courtesan looking for her next provider.
Key Quote: “He puts his face by hers, his nose grazing her ear and his lips just upon her neck, until each of their breaths slows. Thus they sleep and thus they wake. There ought to be little else said on the matter, for lovers are all the same, and only of interest to themselves, but on this count it is remarkable: Angelica Neal has not felt this way before. Or if she has, she has forgot.”
Read if You Like: Meticulously researched historical fiction, luscious and somewhat verbose prose, or tales with a tinge of magical realism.
My Take: Although a bit more superficial than the titles it’s being compared to (like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry), this is a pacey romp that cleverly considers issues of gender, wealth, and class mobility.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The Basics: A compact novel that follows a British woman in her 20s as she grapples with major life events, including the death of her mother and the choice of whether or not to become a mother herself. Interwoven with her personal reflections are detours about historical figures who attempted to see into the human mind and body (through psychoanalysis, the discovery and use of X-ray waves, and early study of human anatomy).
Key Quote: “There are times when pregnancy seems like the narrowing down of options to a point, and still it is impossible to make oneself believe, quite, that there is no way out of it but this: a bed somewhere, a costing up of risks and this pain that tears you from yourself, your mind disbursed by it, your body made an exit wound.”
Read if You Like: Cerebral writing, insular first-person narration, or books that combine the academic and the personal.
My Take: One reader’s profundity is another’s pretension, and this often strayed into the latter for me. But the novel does offer some brilliant passages on family legacies, grief, and the philosophical ties between major historical events and our own intimate experiences.

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
The Basics: A young Indian writer informs the reader that she has recently escaped from an oppressive, violent marriage, then rewinds to illustrate exactly how her husband mentally and physically abused her. Along the way, she confronts how Indian society abets victimizers while shaming victims, acknowledging that she herself believed this kind of thing would never happen to a woman like her.
Key Quote: “The suspicious, violent husband is a character, but already, just by being who he is, he is becoming the first semblance of a plot. It’s a plot that goes nowhere except in dizzying circles, and it’s a plot that remains tightly under his control. But, recently, I have begun to learn how to wrest it back. …I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.”
Read if You Like: Fiction with hints of memoir, mordant humor, or fragmented narratives.
My Take: This is a harrowing, fiercely intelligent account of one woman’s battles against both internal and external critics (and it’s my personal pick to win).

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Basics: When a British teenager named Parvaiz Pasha is recruited by ISIS, his sisters have opposing views on how to move forward—and that’s before their brother’s story gains international attention. Like its source material (the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone), this story poses the questions: How does the power of the individual compare to the power of the state? And what happens when their interests conflict?
Key Quote: “If you look at colonial laws you’ll see plenty of precedent for depriving people of their rights; the only difference is this time it’s applied to British citizens, and even that’s not as much of a change as you might think, because they’re rhetorically being made un-British. …Even when the word ‘British’ was used [for the 7/7 terrorists], it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my personal favorite, ‘British passport holders,’ always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.”
Read if You Like: Multifaceted explorations of identity, classic retellings, or a touch of melodrama.
My Take: Fast-paced and stirring, this novel builds to a phenomenal final section that will surprise even readers of Sophocles.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Basics: When Leonie gets a call that her boyfriend, Michael, has been released from prison, she and their two children (Jojo, 13, and Kayla, 2) set out together to pick him up. Their days traveling through rural Mississippi are filled with family tension, drug trafficking, and ghostly presences.
Key Quote: “When Mama first realized that something was seriously wrong with her body, that it had betrayed her and turned cancerous, she began by treating it herself with herbs. …Her body broke down over the years until she took to her bed, permanently, and I forgot so much of what she taught me. I let her ideas drain from me so that the truth could pool instead. Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”
Read if You Like: Southern gothic fiction, flawed and complex characters, or novels that connect America’s past and present demons through incisive portraits of black American experiences.
My Take: I’m in the minority of readers in that I found this book rather bland and static. But there’s a wonderfully seething undercurrent to the story, and there’s a reason Ward’s lyrical writing has earned her legions of fans.