Posted on 20th September 2011

Posted by Sophie

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Oyne Book Club reads Night Waking

As part of the Fiction Uncovered 2011 promotion, we worked with The Reading Agency to reach reading groups across the UK. As part of the promotion eight selected reading groups were given one of the selected Fiction Uncovered titles to read and we’re delighted that they’ve been able to feed back their thoughts.

We’ll be posting up a selection of the reviews over the coming months.

This is a review of Sarah Moss’s Night Waking by the Oyne Book Club, Insch, Aberdeenshire.

“Anna Bennett is a historian and Oxford Fellow and mother of two boys. She comes from a working class background and has married into aristocracy, albeit somewhat impoverished. Her husband, Giles, is an ecologist devoted to the dwindling puffin population on the Scottish island he has inherited.  So devoted in fact, he has persuaded his wife to spend a summer there while she finishes her career- saving book and helps start up their self catering business in a converted ‘blackhouse’.  The blackhouse, usual dwelling of indigenous islanders (and their animals) of previous centuries is now a luxury holiday home in glaring contrast to the ramshackle laird’s house in which the family attempt some sort of domesticity.

Anna is not a homemaker. She is a historian and a mother. She does not enjoy motherhood (though loves her children) and sees the comforts of libraries, scholarly chat and Oxford colleges disappearing into a pit of sleeplessness and domesticity. Her younger son, Moth, wakes every night screaming and she comforts him with stories he has heard many times before, though often spiced with the inventions of a woman despairing of her lot: ‘Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit’.

The book charts, at length, the dialogue between Anna and her children, the horribly named Moth (Timothy) and seven year old Raph, a boy with dark fears and a remarkable knowledge of global disasters.  The interaction between the three is the backbone of the novel and it works well to hold all the other strands together. The discovery of a baby’s skeleton in the garden leads to a search for the story of the newborn’s identity. Anna’s research for her book on the paradox of romanticised childhood in a time of institutionalising the young poor in the nineteenth century is quoted throughout. Chapters are headed by paragraphs from Anna Freud’s work on children brought up in residential care and the themes are subtly linked to the chapter’s text.

Anna researches the island in wartime when it hosted a girls’ school. The story of May Moberley is interspersed with the modern tale.  May, an English midwife, was hired by an ancestor of Giles’ to help the island women in childbirth and improve the dreadful rate of infant mortality of the nineteenth century island population. Her letters home link the past to the present and paint a realistic picture of the squalor and poverty of island life before deportation and depopulation.

By looking into past childhood experiences on the island Anna can balance her view of modern motherhood with the torments of history: the mothers watching their children die of neonatal tetanus and prevented by superstition and ignorance from stalling the trend, the boarding school child driven to suicide, perhaps, by the insensitive letters of her mother, and the casual disregard of a schoolteacher attempting to teach starving children in a language they did not understand.  In Anna‘s experience, modern motherhood is different but equally miserable. To the reader this seems callous but she is honest in the depiction of her own distress.  She does not ask for sympathy. Instead she analyses her thoughts and actions constantly and eventually resolves some of her guilt and unhappiness in a gently uplifting finale.

The book’s serious themes are carefully imbedded in comedy. Despite minor annoyances about use of language it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. The twin strengths of humour (the description of Anna breastfeeding at a formal College dinner will remain with me) and the portrayal of a modern, flawed but honest woman make this novel worthwhile.”

A video interview with Sarah Moss.

Sarah Moss reading an extract from Night Waking.

Damian Barr, judge for Fiction Uncovered 2011, on Night Waking by Sarah Moss



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