If you’re anything like me and have hundreds of books on your to-be-read pile and a mental TBR that’s even longer, then you might do what I do and try to read as widely as possible. I can have months where all the books I read are by different authors and most of them new-to-me. There are so many authors out there that I want to try that reading multiple books by the same author occasionally can make me feel like I’m almost being greedy – which I know is irrational but irrational thoughts are a daily occurrence for me.
But last month I decided I was going do a little experiment and try reading the way I used to read. When I was younger I had a few stock authors where I would just devour everything they had ever written, and every time I picked up one of their books it would be like catching up with an old friend or slipping on a favourite jumper. I missed that feeling and wanted to recapture it by familiarising myself more intimately with an author and their style by reading a couple of their books in close succession. One of those authors in June for me was Sarah Moss.
I read Ghost Wall in May and really enjoyed it (you can check out my review for that one on my Instagram page if you’re interested!) and I had picked up a gorgeous hard cover of Bodies of Light at a book sale a few months back (for a bargain £1!), so a mere two books after finishing Ghost Wall, I picked up my second Sarah Moss. I really do think it makes a difference in cultivating your appreciation for an author by reading their works close together – this book was very different from Ghost Wall both stylistically and plot-wise (and even better in my opinion) and it made me appreciate the scope of Moss’ writing skills.
Set during the early stages of the Suffrage movement in England, we become intimately acquainted with a family of four, where dysfunction is the name of the game. Alfred the father is a painter and more interested in growing his reputation than noticing what’s going on within his own family. The mother Elizabeth is marked by her own puritanical upbringing and as a result, obsessed with doing good in the community while neglecting her daughters in the process. Ally, the eldest daughter, is suffering with mental health issues while at the forefront of women in higher education, and May, the youngest, is flighty, naïve, and just trying to have some fun where she can.
I’d never actually read a book set during this time period before and I have no idea why – the fight for women to be allowed into higher education, the fallout from the Contagious Diseases Act, all of it is intensely interesting to me and Moss handles it all with grace and aplomb. For only a 300 page book it spans quite a few years, from Elizabeth’s childhood through to her own (reluctant) experiences with motherhood, and then watching Ally and May grow up and become young women in a world that was actively trying to push back against them.
By far the most compelling aspect of the book was Ally’s experience being one of the very first women in the country to be allowed to study medicine. Imagine how utterly terrifying it must have been to have the entire worlds’ eyes on you (male ones especially), just waiting for you to trip up and make that one crucial mistake that will allow them to justify banning women from ever practising medicine. The weight she feels on her shoulders on behalf of her entire sex is accurately and heartbreakingly conveyed by Moss, as she combines this with Ally’s struggles with anxiety. At this time, mental illnesses were still dismissed as hysteria, women suffering with mental illnesses banished to asylums with unthinkable conditions.
A line of thinking that still pervades today is that women must either choose between a successful career and starting a family. Ally has to deal with this in the early 20th century, which obviously was a million times more difficult to combat. I loved that she rejected the idea and showed she could do both: be a doctor and be a mother. The sort of backward thinking that women can’t be liberated and independent and still enjoy motherhood is still a problem today, while the important thing is choice, and Moss does a great job of reminding us of that fact.
I would recommend this book wholeheartedly, and look forward to reading my next Sarah Moss.