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Signs for Lost Children Paperback – April 11, 2017
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Praise for Signs for Lost Children
“Matching exceptionally fine prose with pinpoint sensitivity, British novelist Moss (Bodies of Light, 2014, etc.) delivers a thoughtful account of one intelligent, sometimes-fragile woman's response to a dark, dynamic era.”
"The richness of Moss's work is astonishing. Few writers demonstrate such quietly magisterial command of the rocky territories of both the heart and mind."
"We have in Ally one of the most memorable heroines of recent fiction. If there's one author to take a chance on this year, let it be [Sarah Moss]."
"In this fine exploration of marriage and the complex minds of 'lost children'—that is, all of us—Moss mines and aassesses a union of gifted individuals who follow their paths with great determination, unaware that their hearts will surely be changed in the process."
—The New York Times Book Review
"A compelling, often harrowing, occasionally heartbreaking read. A quietly devastating portrait of the way identity crumbles when you've nothing, or no one, to pin it to."
"Moss, a writer of complexity, and restraint, shows real skill in the way she brings these 'lost children' back together."
About the Author
Sarah Moss is the award-winning author of three previous novels: Night Waking, selected for the Fiction Uncovered Award in 2011, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Prize in 2013, and Bodies of Light, shortlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Prize. Signs for Lost Children was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Moss teaches Creative Writing at the University of Warwick in England.
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Top customer reviews
As the dual perspective of the story develops - Tom adjusting to Japanese ways, Ally shocked to her core at the harsh treatment of the asylum patients - so the reader adjusts to the writing style: rather formal, slightly chilly. But the gas is turned up when Ally returns to her parental home in Manchester and we shudder to see that her insufferably righteous Mamma has become ever more critical of her poor beleaguered daughter. I was tempted to sit on my hands for fear of strangling the woman.
One wills Tom to return home safely to his new wife. One muses that he might take Ally back with him to Japan where the tranquil ways of Kyoto may bring her peace of mind. And one thanks heaven for kind, insightful Aunt Mary - easily my favourite character. With such moving sentiments and sentences, Sarah Moss is a writer who clearly deserves more mainstream attention.
This is a novel of reflection and observation rather than action. I found it a bit of a struggle, if I am honest, though there is much to like.
Separately Tom and Ally go about their lives. Only occasionally does either think of the other. This does not feel like love or even a relationship. In fairness, this is the point to a degree – the difficulty they have with each other.
Ally is portrayed as a very innovative psychiatrist – farsighted and imaginative. I assume this has historical basis, but she seems modern in her thinking. Sarah Moss tells us a lot about Ally’s work. It is inherently interesting and emotionally engaging. In herself happy she is not - still haunted by her horrible mother and traumatic childhood.
In this period a number of experts – o-yatoi – went to Japan as the country was opened up and modernized. So too Tom. However, his project of building lighthouses is barely touched on. Most of our attention is devoted to Japanese culture and his attempts to understand it – not always successful. Engineering may lack the appeal of medical drama but it does leave the story unbalanced. The author tells much about Japan in the late 19th century, but uses Japanese terms without really explaining what they mean; a glossary would have helped. That said I was prompted to read more on these topics.
The novel has an intriguing title – specifically it refers to a Japanese custom described in the book. More generally it refers to the two characters’ search for meaning, for signs, of how to live, indeed of how to love each other. “It is not in romance, nor even sex, that we find the human purpose but in kindness and endurance”, reflects Ally. Well, yes – but this is very Ally, I think.
The author writes well as ever. She is especially strong on creating little scenes – a fraught meal at the Ambassador’s in Tokyo is run against a bleak Christmas dinner at the Moberleys. But generally I found too little of these and too much of Tom’s and Ally’s inner monologues. Moreover, certain passages of description are often repeated. Her characters move better in motion.
It is the1880s. Tom and Ally are recently married but Tom’s job takes him to Japan where he is to advise on building a lighthouse, whilst Ally keeps the home fires burning in Falmouth. She is one of the first women to qualify as a doctor and is dipping her toe in the water and trying to reform the care and treatment of women with mental health issues, who are incarcerated in a local asylum.
Improving conditions in such an institution is a thankless task and Ally struggles to make headway with both the patients and the embedded strictures of the place. All the while the cutting voice of her mother burrows away in her head – her mother impresses on Ally time and again, how she, virtuously and with no self regard, has sacrificed everything in her life to be able to devote herself to the needs of the poor, but by so doing has alienated her family members through her haranguing self denial. Ally is in a permanent state of anxiety and apprehension around her mother, whether she is physically present or not.
Tom – whilst in Kyoto, Japan – has been tasked to bring back items of Japanese art and finery for a collector in Falmouth, and relishes the newness and difference that he encounters in this utterly foreign land. The quality of the author’s description is beguiling and nuanced.
There are many different levels in this book, strands that weave and come together. Tom is learning about Japanese folklore, and understanding how madness is explained away by the notion that foxes inhabit the brains of the mentally unstable (yet paradoxically they are also revered on occasion). This neatly dovetails with the work that Ally is doing back in Falmouth. Her work, however, continues to be exacerbated by her own mother’s continually droning ‘voice’, her acute self denial governs still governs Ally’s every move. It is clear that the author has a great interest in mental health issues.
Both husband and wife struggle to understand the unique environment in which they each find themselves and each has to face their own demons and disconnectedness, which then reverberate back into their marital dynamics. Can they resurrect some kind of connection and normality once Tom returns from his travels, or have their personal and individual experiences changed them beyond repair?
There are wonderful little insights into the culture of the time, especially in Japan, where, for example in Tokyo there was already piped water, whilst in London the authorities were still struggling with typhoid and cholera (and cholera, of course is spread through contaminated water, as the authorities soon come to discover). The ‘Signs for Lost Children’ of the title is a phenomenon Tom discovers whilst out in Japan, and that strand appears in various guises – often ephemeral – throughout. There is also evident delight in the objets d’art that Tom sources – the cloths and the delicately carved netsuke, and pleasure in the little observations of Japanese Custom, beautifully rendered. A rewarding and well written book with creatively tackled subject matter. The book deserves a wider audience.