With this duology, I’m assured of Sarah Moss as a writer of incredible nuance, intelligence, observation, elegance and style. Signs for Lost Children picks up just where Bodies of Light left, so I’d really encourage one to start with Bodies of Light before they try this as the motivations of these characters, the backstories and context would all be lost by starting directly here.
Bodies of Light triumphs in its themes, but rushes through the years. Signs for Lost Children, on the other hand, is set across a single year following Ally’s marriage. So in some respect, there’s more coherence to the plot, more substance to the characters. Just weeks into married life, the young couple face a period of separation with Tom heading off to Japan for a work assignment and Ally taking up the position as a doctor in the Truro mental asylum. The narrative then alternates between Ally and Tom, mapping their lives from Cornwall to Japan creating a dichotomous yet distinct ‘parallel lines, parallel lives’ kind-of story.
At its core Signs for Lost Children offers a fascinating deep-dive into the stigma of mental illnesses in the 19th century. Ally is such an interesting protagonist in her own sense as she herself suffers from anxiety issues stemming from the mental torture instigated by her own mother. Moss creates these incredibly claustrophobic scenes of being trapped in Ally’s head where you understand that she’s allowing herself to be hurt by her mother, and as a reader, you feel the pent-up frustration and yet an overwhelming feeling of empathy of what it means to be in that position. Incapacitated, by sheer lack of will to fight back.
Ally, thus, portrays a very unique position. She is both the physician and the patient, the healer and the sufferer, at once, and in a time when mental illnesses were not considered as ’real’ illnesses. Alternating with that are stunning descriptions of 19th century Japan, of the way mental illnesses there, were perceived as being possessed by mythical fox spirits and the curiosities of seeing this ancient culture from the eyes of a British man. The dual narrative braid into one another, charting each of their paths as they navigate loneliness and their own internal struggles. The only setback I felt was it dragged at parts.
Sarah Moss isn’t for everyone. There is a certain level of patience required to tackle a Sarah Moss novel, but the end result is rewarding in my opinion. Her stories aren’t plot heavy, they aren’t filled with intrigue. Instead they offer thorough insight into a particular topic, at a level that almost feels academic without being factual, interesting without being laborious, atmospheric without necessarily having any elements of mystery and through those layers, Moss shines.