The stack gets higher and higher though I have managed to scrape about three inches off it with my reading of The Luminaries, but another writer came to my attention recently and I realised that I had somehow missed her along the way and here was a third novel in a loosely connected series.
Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss.
Only weeks into their marriage a young couple embark on a six-month period of separation. Tom Cavendish goes to Japan to build lighthouses and his wife Ally, Doctor Moberley-Cavendish, stays and works at the Truro asylum. As Ally plunges into the institutional politics of mental health, Tom navigates the social and professional nuances of late 19th century Japan. With her unique blend of emotional insight and intellectual profundity, Sarah Moss builds a novel in two parts from Falmouth to Tokyo, two maps of absence; from Manchester to Kyoto, two distinct but conjoined portraits of loneliness and determination.
I ventured halfway into Japan recently with David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet before the present tense narrative defeated me. I was disappointed in myself as much as the book having had such high hopes after enjoying The Bone Clocks.
As for Falmouth and Truro, we go there all the time.
Never mind, that's the story of a reading life after all.
But what on earth had happened to Sarah Moss on my radar and her previous two books in this series, Night Waking and Bodies of Light and an earlier novel Cold Earth?
Night Waking had even been chosen for Fiction Uncovered the year before I was a judge, Bodies of Light had been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize in 2014, both prizes that I follow and both sounded like 'my sort of book' especially given Sarah Moss's own observations...
It’s the story-telling part of medicine that attracts me, the way we go to a doctor with one story and expect to come away with another, and the way doctors are like editors, deciding which bit of our story to keep and which bit is extraneous to the next draft, the diagnosis. I think doctors have long known that the ‘patient histories’ they take are shaped by narrative tradition, but often, I think, a diagnosis is also a story, shaped by a different tradition.
I was reminded of that medical humanities conference of many years ago, when I heard Arthur Franks talking about his book The Wounded Storyteller, the narrative of illness and how patients are telling their story in a consultation and the importance of listening. It was one of those eureka moments in professional practice for me, linking medicine and literature and changing substantially how I would approach those situations in future.
And it was something I was acutely aware of when the tables were turned earlier this year and my dad was on the receiving end.
I watched very carefully..
Who gave him time to talk...
Who asked him about himself and his life, and understood that just because he was approaching ninety was no reason to assume he was weary of it all, because he wasn't, even at the end.
Who was in a rush and heard only what they wanted to hear...
We had a moment very early in the process when minor surgery was required to remove what everyone had thought was a benign cyst and, little suspecting what it harboured, I was more terrified about the risks of a general anaesthetic. Knowing how compromised the Tinker's heart was a very astute anaesthetist picked up my concerns and came to see us bedside prior to the surgery, actually kneeling on the floor to talk to us thus placing himself below both my dad in bed, and me sitting alongside. He listened and reassured us for a good long thirty minutes when we knew theatre time was booked and everyone was ready and waiting.
These things really do make a difference I realised.
Meanwhile I would love to know your thoughts if you have read any of Sarah Moss's fiction, or the non-fiction Names for the Sea - Strangers in Iceland , which incidentally I think you will agree sports a cover that is right up our alley...
And what about the books you have been meaning to read...