Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Granta, February 2011
Paperback, 378 pages.
Bought by me, from Waterstones in 2012.
Sarah Moss' second novel, Night Waking, just edged its way onto my 'best of 2013' list. I roared through it over Christmas like a guilty pleasure. I was feeling very well-inclined towards the world in general and it was the beneficiary. So goes the subjective project of reading I suppose; at another time of year it might not have fared so well, because I can see on reflection Night Waking is difficult in its brilliance. It's a novel of fascinating ideas and entertainments and dark humour - and highly recommended - but also slightly repetitious and flawed.
Dr Anna Bennett is an Oxford research fellow cast off on the deserted Hebridean island of Colsay with her two children - seven year old Raphael and two year old Moth - and her husband Giles Cunningham. Giles, who manages to be an absentee father despite being the only other adult within 20 miles, is an ornithologist and also the island's owner. Colsay has been in his family for generations, since the 1840s, when the Cunninghams were absentee landlords over a handful of crofters. The last tenants left in the 1960s, leaving the picturesque ruins to the puffins. Now even the puffins are leaving and their decline is the subject of Giles' academic work. Anna is keeping him company while he collects data during the summer months and they renovate one of the abandoned blackhouses as a luxury holiday rental cottage. She is also trying and failing to write up her research on childhood in the 18th century.
Failing mostly because of the responsibilities of unsupported motherhood and the effects of two years of chronic sleep deprivation (as well as the usual self-sabotage of procrastination). Moth, who has never slept through the night, and Raph, who is in constant fear of the apocalypse, leave her with very little time to herself. The time she does snatch is overshadowed by feelings of shame and anger: that she is a neglectful mother on the one hand, and that her children have robbed of her career on the other. We meet Anna on a knife edge of desperation, consumed by regret, apparently powerless to change direction.
She loves her children desperately, and is fiercely protective, and fearful of their harm. She reads and rereads manuals on childcare best practise for feeding, exercising, educating. Her children are raised on organic snacks; she makes all their own bread; Raphael feeds his sense of impending doom by reading the Guardian especially shipped from Glasgow. Anna is the very picture of a middle class liberal parent but is constantly falling short. She keeps a stash of cheap biscuits in the cupboard for toddler bribery, and never gets round to the educational 'craft activities' she reads about. Her native intelligence makes her resentful of ridiculous standards, but her aspirations won't let her rest. Her aspirations, her sense of personal inadequacy and also her guilt. At the base of her guilt is her secret wish that she had never had children at all:
Would I do it again, understanding as I do now and didn't then, that failure at motherhood is for life and beyond, that everything that happens to my children and my children's children is my fault? That my meanness and bad temper are going to trickle into the future like nuclear waste into the Irish Sea? No. Not because I don't love my children - everyone loves their children, child abusers love their children - but because I don't like motherhood and you don't find that out till it's too late. Love is not enough when it comes to children. Bad luck.
And beneath the guilt, buried very deep, is the fear. The fear that she might be capable of harming her children for a moment's peace. Moss seeds the book with intimation of child harm. Anna tells us that Raphael 'bruises easily' and Giles catches her pressing Moth violently into his mattress when he won't go down to sleep. When Raph digs up a skeleton of a newborn baby in the garden of their house, Anna's first thought is of infanticide, of cut throats and smotherings. The remains are historical, but not ancient. She distracts herself from her own work with research on infant mortality in the Hebrides and Colsay's history, and spends time reading transcripts of infanticide trials. She is repulsed and compelled by the baby's short life and unusual garden burial.
In a way Night Waking is a dark night of the soul sort of narrative, but it is also consistently funny. The humour comes oftenest out of Anna's power struggles with her children. Like all adults she knows how futile and demeaning it is to pit her wits against a two year old, yet she just can't help doing it. She is rye about her defeats, and subsequent gestures of defiance:
I've stopped showering in the morning because Raph allows me three minutes and stands on the bathmat with a stopwatch telling me how many millimetres of the polar ice cap have been melted by the energy to heat the water and Moth, who still has vivid memories of what breasts are for, peers around the curtain, getting his clothes wet and gesturing unmistakeably. So I run a bath, hot enough and deep enough to drown polar bears.
She takes some satisfaction in a spot of creative reinterpretation as she reads Moth's favourite children's book, The Tiger Who Came for Tea: "Good morning," said the Tiger. 'I'm here to symbolise the danger and excitement that is missing from your life of mindless domesticity,'
Interwoven with Anna' story is another story, in a relatively minor key, constructed from letters written by May Moberley, a well-to-do midwife sent to Colsay in the 1880s by Giles' ancestors. At the time the infant mortality rate on the island was 100%, and May doggedly reports her thwarted attempts to show the women the error of their ways. Her inbred sense of righteousness and entitlement, and moral responsibility to the 'ignorant native', is a text book colonial mentality. It is mirrored in Anna and Giles' own assumptions about the locals who live on the neighbouring island - there probably isn't a cafetiere north of Fort William! they joke - and about the comparatively superior tastes of the cosmopolitan visitors to their blackhouse. While Anna has quite a bee in her bonnet about her relatively humble beginnings, and about the perceived snobbery of the Fellows at her College (and her husband's family), she is herself entirely in their world and blind to the privilege. Visiting the neighbouring island she is surprised to discover they already know who she is and appear to resent her presence; she doesn't recognise herself as interloping Lady of the Manor.
Night Waking is an unpicking of Anna's way of seeing and thinking about the world. A lot of her mental process is consumed with children, some of it with her less than satisfactory marriage and her failing career and Colsay's past, a much smaller part with her work. But whatever she casts her eye on is refracted through an academic lens. When Anna comes across May's story during her Colsay research, she interprets it using discourses of postcolonialism not personal sympathies. I tended to think May was done a disservice in the book - she was so incidental, her character barely developed and I wanted to know more about her. Now though I think Moss' point is not about May at all but about how she is interpreted; how she is read. May is not so much a character as source material.
Anna is constantly in the process of interpreting, of reading in the academic sense, and prefers a world of signs, dialogues and fragmentary evidence to the mess and muck of her reality. This is why she is so utterly consumed by the not particularly mysterious skeleton in her back garden, but not in the slightest by the odd way she is treated by the investigating police officer. The skeleton is a tantalising fragment that her mind can act upon, exactly what she needs history to be - she does not want the full story or the lived experience. She sees the contemporary world, with its glut of information, as the end of history:
History is a retrospective that needs to be partial and fragmentary if we are to make sense of it. There is no story in the muddle and pain of real life, rolling from century to century in births, couplings and death distinguished only by settings and costumes in which we enact them, only a twisted familiarity. I tried and failed to imagine the mess that would result if every Pict had tweeted an account of roman occupation, every Roman his or her own personal narrative of the decline and fall, every Saxon peasant a full and frank account of conversion to Christianity, every Viking farmer the detail of the theft of every Saxon cow. If every human presence on the planet left a story.'
And so Night Waking emerges as a book strangely devoid of sympathy or pity (except self-pity), despite the horror of wars and natural disasters that Raph is constantly in fear of. Tellingly it is only 7 year old Raph who seems to understand that the skeleton in the garden was an actual dead baby, someone's loved one, a source of grief. When Anna explains that it died a long time ago, and that infant mortality was common then, he remains defiant: just because it was a long time ago, doesn't mean it's ok. Anna finds this infuriating, because she can only see the baby as an object of study. It is only one amongst many stories that she doesn't see. Reading her first person narration it's easy to miss the fact that Gile's has just lost his father, and that another motive for them coming to Colsay was for him to grieve and remember. Coming upon a box of the dead man's belongings in his study Anna is surprised that Giles must have brought them with him. In the end she is quite an unsympathetic, closed off figure.
There is so much here, in a book that skims as a drama of parenthood with a weak mystery subplot. It isn't perfect. I wasn't a fan of the late arrival of the holiday cottage guests with their anorexic daughter for example, and Anna's domestic drudgery did become repetitive. But it is full of thinking about the way we interpret (and misinterpret) the past and the people and events around us, and is so canny and understated in how it draws this out. I'm very much looking forward to Moss' next book, Bodies of Light. It is a sort of companion book, following May's sister (the recipient of some of the letters written in this book) who is training to be one of the first women doctors.