Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of Tom and Ally, a newly married couple who spend much of the first six months of their marriage on opposite sides of the world. Set in the 1880s it is an exploration of relationships and the impact these have on individuals who must live within societies suspicious of change. It looks at travel and how this can affect those open to new cultures and ideas. It looks at sanity and what this even means.
Ally is a qualified medical doctor, one of only a few females at the time who managed to find an institution willing to train and offer the qualification to women. Many still frowned at the very idea of a woman doctor, believing them incapable of the rational thought required by the discipline.
Ally has chosen to work voluntarily at an asylum for those classified as insane. Her mother accuses her of wasting the efforts and support of so many who helped her to gain her qualification, believing that she should be treating the poor who cannot afford to pay for medical care. Ally’s mother is a forceful woman whose constant criticisms have had a powerful and damaging influence on her daughter. Ally’s father is an enigmatic artist who used and leant her out as a model from a young age.
Tom is an engineer who designs and supervises the building of lighthouses. He knew when he married Ally that, within weeks, he would be required to travel to Japan for his employer. He understands that Ally has her own career and, unlike many of his peers, accepts that she will not spend her life pandering to his needs. He respects her outlook and believes her strong due to her achievements. The only members of his wife’s family he has met are her kindly aunt and uncle who supported her through her medical training. They have advised him to keep Ally away from her mother.
Tom and Ally have a few short and happy weeks together in his cottage in Cornwall before he must set sail for Japan. He cannot speak the language so relies on a guide and interpreter named Makoto, a fellow engineer who has spent time in Britain, and on books he has read which help him navigate the nuances of Japanese culture. Tom soon becomes enamoured with Japan, seeking to understand their customs and ways of thinking. He observes and ponders how his home country must look to the Japanese:
“Tom wants to see Britain from behind Makoto’s eyes, to see the strange and unnatural things to which he himself and everyone he knows is forever blind.”
“The mind reaches for similitude, making the new in the image of the familiar.”
While Tom is exploring not just this new and strange country but also his reaction to it, especially compared to the many foreigners who try to live as they would at home, Ally is working on the women’s wards at the Truro Asylum. Here she faces prejudices from staff as well as the challenge of dealing with patients. She wishes to study what drives people to insanity, and to discover if the process can be reversed. What she finds is that the asylum, even with its many flaws, can be a sanctuary from the women’s home life where abuse of all kinds is rife. What is less clear is how she could orchestrate change when it is the men who pay for and dictate policy, and who commit these women when their behaviour is deemed unacceptable.
With Tom away, Ally’s mother puts pressure on her to spend the months of separation in Manchester covering for a doctor in need of rest. When events at the asylum force Ally to leave she capitulates, moving north to the matriarch whose voice is forever in her head. Despite Ally’s good work amongst the poor she finds home life an unmitigated strain. She begins to questions her own sanity.
By the time Tom returns both he and his wife have been markedly changed. They are unaware of how the other has been affected by their recent experiences; how could they when they were not there?
The story flows with a poignant and compelling story of people, told in language rich with imagery. It takes the reader into the heart of each location, empathising with the loneliness, desires and ambitions of the protagonists. Its scope and depth urge the reader to pause and consider many wider issues.
This is a book that will linger. An intelligent, beautiful tale that I recommend you read.