Night Waking

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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.

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