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"Work-Life Balance Suffers (Even) in Victorian England" (Review of Sarah Moss's Signs for Lost Children)

The New York Times, April 2017

By Sarah Moss
420 pp. Europa Editions. Paper, $19.

In an era when Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, encourages young women to lean in to paid work and Damien Chazelle uses his film “La La Land” to portray the sacrifices lovers must make to pursue their artistic goals, the British writer Sarah Moss shows how little the concerns that rise from the intersection of work and love have changed over the last century. Her latest novel, “Signs for Lost Children,” offers a vivid psychological portrait of a woman doctor, Ally Moberly, whose efforts to help those struggling with mental illness in Victorian England are complicated by her own neuroses. In depicting Ally’s marriage to an architect and engineer named Tom Cavendish, Moss raises significant questions about our modern sensibilities, our attitudes toward the competing pulls of work and love among husbands and wives.

Moss’s novel returns readers to a character from an earlier book, “Bodies of Light.” There we came to know Ally Moberly, whose father is a successful painter and whose mother is a religious zealot devoted to the poor of Manchester yet haunted by the death of Ally’s sister May. As this new novel opens, it is the late 1870s and Ally, a pioneer in the male-dominated medical profession, has just met ginger-haired Tom, who has risen from a working-class background to work for a company building lighthouses throughout the world. After she graduates and becomes a doctor, they are married, but six weeks later his employer sends him to far-off Japan.

In chapters that move back and forth between them, we follow Tom on his Asian travels and Ally in Cornwall, where she works in an insane asylum whose female patients are treated with horrifyingly primitive methods. Tom’s experiences in an alien culture and Ally’s travails in England are juxtaposed, allowing the reader to join them on their separate quests even as their nascent marriage is shaped by their separate concerns.

As a stylist, Moss deploys an arresting third-person stream-of-consciousness perspective to great effect, affording the reader a better understanding of her characters, particularly the very private Ally. “You chose the asylum,” she tells herself, “because you indulge yourself in feeblemindedness. Because despite all your training and all your so-called qualifications, you are still crazed.” By employing brief chapters and a vibrant present tense — “Rain scrabbles on the roof and the fire hisses and shifts. In the kitchen, cups and bowls chime as water pours and the maids’ voices rise and fall” — Moss makes a novel rooted in the past feel contemporary.

Ally and Tom are highly educated people who are fortunate enough to follow their callings. Yet Moss shows how they must recognize that their work inevitably changes them. As Ally attempts to study the treatment of mental illness in an era when the allegedly insane are left to molder in abusive institutions, she begins to regress herself, recalling harsh memories of life with her relentlessly ascetic mother and neglectful father and the tragic loss of her sister. In contrast, Tom’s mission abroad — to bring Western engineering to a nation attempting to modernize while also fulfilling a lucrative commission to buy exotic wares for a buccaneering businessman — transforms him from a provincial Englishman who spurns “slimy” Japanese sweets to a wanderlust-afflicted vagabond obsessed with “fox possession” myths who “does not want to go home.”

In this fine exploration of marriage and the complex minds of “lost children” — that is, all of us — Moss mines and assesses a union of gifted individuals who follow their paths with great determination, unaware that their hearts will surely be changed in the process.

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