There was a book that came to mind as I read Night Waking by Sarah Moss.
Happy as a Dead Cat by Jill Miller, and published by The Women's Press in 1983 (remember the black and white spines and the iron?) somehow voiced how many of us were feeling back then. It was much borrowed, enjoyed, laughed over and greatly discussed amongst my circle of friends...
'...the life of an emerging feminist with five children (two at the breast) one rabbit, one cat, a goldfish and a husband. Thirty-seven years old and discovering that she's oppressed.'
In a cover quote Fay Weldon says...
'A fictional tale which carries all the force of naked truth. Funny, tragic, appalling and heartening all at once. How brave we are! Well, have to be...'
We were the generation of women trained in a career but with few choices available once we had children. Here in the West Country childcare was almost non-existent. Offspringette was the sixth child on the roll when the town's first nursery opened (didn't want to look too keen, but three children under the age of four was quite a challenge) I loved my years at home but there is no doubt it had its moments.
I once recall taking all three pre-school children to the GP with different ailments and being asked if I needed anything... out shot my reply before I could stop myself
'A week's solitary in Dartmoor Prison...could you sort that?'
He was the GP for the prison, it was the practice I had worked in, it seemed a remote possibility.
I had come across Happy as a Dead Cat in a second-hand bookshop in town whilst struggling to get my double buggy in and out of the door whilst keeping wandering toddler hands away from the books. It was a very old-fashioned shop; all new books were wrapped in polythene bags, thus defying closer inspection, and I could see the owner's heart sink as anyone with children walked in the door. He would always ask me to park the buggy and children at the door...and I never would, though god knows if anyone wanted to steal them they were welcome to try that manoeuvre back out through the narrow doorway.
Eventually the book was lent and never returned but I bought another copy a few years ago thinking I would read it again and remember and laugh. The funny thing was that I didn't find it in the least bit amusing; it had lost its relevance in my life...was my memory really so short...about sleepless nights and nappies and toddlers, and that sense of frustration at once having held down a good job, and not being able to decide whether to buy Frosties or Cornflakes in the supermarket.
This is all by way of saying that having thoroughly enjoyed Night Waking, there were moments when my patience with Anna's relentless and enforced martyrdom to motherhood wore a little thin. I'm out of that working world now too, when I had to empathise with young mothers every day...maybe that's part of it. I'm out of both practice and practise.
None of this detracted from the premise of Night Waking which is fascinating...
Anna Bennett finds herself sleep-deprived and marooned from her academic life for a year in order to accompany Giles Cassingham, her ecologist husband, to a remote Scottish island where the puffins have to be counted. In tow are the couple's two children, the precocious and terrifyingly intelligent seven-year old Raphael (heavens what trouble awaits ahead in his life) and the demanding toddler Moth (nicely and differently short for Timothy). As well as the remoteness of Colsay, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the island has belonged to the Cassingham family for generations and with it comes an inherited dislike and suspicion from the locals. When the bones of a baby are dug up in the garden suspicion falls in every direction.
It's all a rich dichotomy that Sarah Moss explores extensively, whilst neatly juxtaposing the twenty-first century plot with a series of letters written on the island in the 1870s by May Moberley. May has been sent to the island to try and stem the tide of infant mortality akin to that on St Kilda, on which the book is historically based, and it is all interspersed with child care theory from the recent past....Anna Freud, John Bowlby et al.
I find the story and history of St Kilda endlessly compelling, it's on our list of Places to Visit (somehow)
And, like St Kilda, in its own way Night Waking is also a book of extremes.
The dialogue, the interactions and exchanges often seem to reflect what may often be thought but not said, except there are no checks and balances on a remote island. St Kilda had its own tried and trusted methods of self-regulation and self-caring, but no holds are barred on fictional Colsay as Anna's isolation and sense of frustration increases, and with it a descent into savagery of a verbal kind. It seems damaging and exposing, as if island life strips away all the niceties and the need to keep up appearances. When a family come to stay in the holiday cottage...well they are prey to it all too...dysfunction abounds.
And then there's Moth, verbally ahead of himself in both language and reasoning for a toddler, and the hapless Raphael who worries about matters of great technical import such as the logistics of building a cable bridge across to the island. Poor Anna has her work cut out with the pair of them day-in-day-out whilst Giles dashes off to do his puffin counting at every fraught moment.
Maybe every generation of mothers needs a Happy as a Dead Cat sort of book and I suspect Night Waking is the one for now. I can imagine the Mumsnet generation readily identifying with many aspects of this.
If you have read Night Waking I would love to know your thoughts...
Maybe you have grandchildren and your powers of empathy are more acute than mine at the moment...
But I am now really looking forward to the next book in this 'trilogy' Bodies of Light.