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Bodies of Light, by Sarah Moss, Granta, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
Ally’s Papa is a celebrated artist and designer in Victorian England; her sister, May, poses for Papa’s dishy friends; and Mamma rescues child prostitutes. In a letter each birthday, evangelical Mamma denounces Ally’s weakness, her pride, her sloth and her idiotic fits of hysteria. Notwithstanding this abuse (and more besides), Ally is morbidly self-effacing, desperately diligent and the brightest girl in her school, set to become one of Britain’s first female doctors. Yet still Mamma blames her.
Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss’s third novel, is the disquieting tale of a child who cannot live up to the impossible expectations of an unsparingly sanctimonious (and cruel) parent. It is also a clinical account of how pauper women lived – and suffered – in 19th-century Britain, and of those doughty souls who laboured to ease their pain. Moss’s style is measured and refined but lacks a certain spark; the substance of her book, though, is wise and tender. A very accomplished piece of work.