'She writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now, about our fears and obsessions and dreams, about mortality and parenthood and just keeping going from day to day.'
Margaret Drabble sharing her thoughts on Sarah Moss.
I have written about Sarah Moss on here before (my thoughts on Night Waking) and I know she has many fans among you, so you will all be delighted to know that there is a new novel, published by Granta this week, The Tidal Zone, and for once, look, here I am an early reader, on the button with publication date so you can all get your library reservations in double quick before the word gets out. Because if you enjoy Sarah Moss's writing then I think you will love this one... to my mind her best novel to date and if you haven't discovered her then you have treats in store.
But hold on a minute, before I write another line I must laud the cover to the heavens because what you might think is a photograph is actually a painting entitled Eliza by artist Michael Gaskell, and please check out his website because the pictures are stunning.
"Working primarily in egg tempera, my aim is to produce paintings of heightened realism which convey a sense of stillness and contemplation. The hallmarks of my work are clarity of composition which engages the eye in combination with a high level of detail which rewards close scrutiny."
The cover truly fulfilled the potential of the book for me, narrated as it is by her father but almost offering direct access to daughter Miriam's feelings.
Now the blurb has the potential to sound a bit on the gloomy side of dark but don't be deterred...
"Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter's school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed..."
In that tennis-elbow-foot way that reading often connects itself I also happened to be reading the biography of John and Myfanwy Piper by Frances Spalding and had reached the part where John Piper is commissioned firstly to travel to Coventry as a war artist the day after the bombing, and then later to design the stained glass in the Baptistry for Sir Basil Spence's restoration of the destroyed building.
And I was only reading about John Piper because he had been an inspiration to Rena Gardiner.
And I had only been reading about Rena Gardiner because I happened to have found that book.
I love it when reading does this.
And so, for reasons unknown Miriam has collapsed at school, is resuscitated by one of her teachers and then spends a seemingly interminable time in hospital while the doctors try to discover the cause. Life for the Goldschmidt family becomes a life in limbo, their previous existence is fractured and fears can only be compounded by the fact that Miriam's mother is a stressed and over-worked GP, the family's main wage-earner and someone who knows far more than is comforting. Cracks reveal what lies beneath as family life is rent asunder and younger sister, eight-year-old Rose must also find her place in this world of changed circumstances.
Anyone who has spent time in hospital, or been alongside someone who has will understand this...
'Hospitals have their own gravitational field, their own atmosphere, you can feel it from the car parks...'
and it is Sarah Moss's astute observations about this other world, the one that estranges those experiencing it from reality whilst also creating a form of dependency, that resonated so clearly for me as I read.
I've been on both sides of the divide, the one running the ward, writing the notes, having a handle on what was happening behind the scenes, but how well I remember hospital encounters with the Tinker (dad of dgr for any who may not know) last year and that sense of vulnerability coupled with a sort of safety (we are in here, if anything happens we'll be fine and anything they suggest is a really good idea) and all inextricably linked to an untold number of wild and uncontrollable fears. It's little wonder people emerge from hospital stays feeling exhausted, enslaved to that odd routine of early mornings, observations, the tea trolley and doctor's rounds and ever so slightly detached from the world.
As a health visitor I would always make contact and if necessary visit families after a hospital admission with their children, if only for them to off-load it all, and for me to contain anxieties if I could whilst ensuring that they felt supported and had a chain of communication if they were worried or fearful. For the Goldschmidts that is proving increasingly difficult. Parents are supposed to contain the anxieties of their children but how to do that when your child is as astute as Miriam and within the context of 'the intensive farming of modern urban childhood.'
And who is to contain the Goldschmidts' anxieties, everyone needs someone.
At this point enter Adam's father bearing the reader access to Adam's fascinating past, plenty of revelations to be found there along with the emphasis that we are each the sum of our background, but with it comes a measure of the reassurance that is required...
'I felt my dad's hand on my shoulder. It's going to be OK Adam.'
Miriam, on the cusp of that strange age when children become adults is less certain and witness the often necessary rift between parents and teenagers. If you're lucky it is just the occasional fault line easily bridged, if not it can be a rift valley, and the reader can only watch as the chasm gets wider between Adam and Miriam and his wife Emma too. It is Miriam who asks the awkward questions, unpacking the over-burdened elephant in the room...
'Supposing I had died,'
'What if I do die?'
Meanwhile alongside all this, Adam continues researching and writing his history of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral and Sarah Moss weaves in those themes of the destruction of what has gone before and the need to find and build on new foundations to perfection. Adam and Emma must first shore up and then support and sustain both themselves and their daughters and find those good old silver linings in the clouds, yet still believing and fearing that she could die at any minute. Reappraisal, renewal and re-imagining were the touchstones of Sir Basil Spence's winning designs for the cathedral, that what has been taken for granted can longer be so and likewise life for the Goldschmidt family.
Full of uncertainty about the diagnosis and fearful of ever leaving Miriam alone. Emma must somehow hold down her job as a GP whilst Adam, in particular, has to overcome the temptation to return to the safety and routines of childhood parenting, and of course Miriam will be having none of that either. Ultimately the family have to learn to live the new normal with all its fears and threats and Sarah Moss traverses the territory with assurance and confidence
With each book I sense an author getting better and better...and that is sadly so often not the case. I suspect we can all think of the first novel that took our breath away and the second, maybe third that left us wanting. Not so with Sarah Moss who having already made the Wellcome Prize shortlist twice must surely make it for a third time with The Tidal Zone and surely other accolades will follow.
As one of our Endsleigh book group members regularly says, 'I commend this book to the house.'