As part of the Fiction Uncovered 2011 promotion, we worked with The Reading Agency to reach reading groups across the UK. Eight selected reading groups were given one of the Fiction Uncovered titles to read, and we’re delighted that they’ve been able to feed back their thoughts. Here, Oyne Book Club, from Oyne in Aberdeenshire, give us their thoughts on Sarah Moss’s Night Waking.
‘Night Waking follows the ups and downs of a family of four – Anna, an Oxford academic, her husband Giles, and their two boys: 7-year-old Raph, a boy with dark fears and remarkable knowledge of global disasters, and toddler Moth. Anna is from a working-class background and has married into aristocracy, albeit somewhat impoverished. Giles is an ecologist devoted to the dwindling puffin population on the uninhabited Scottish island he has inherited. So devoted, in fact, he has persuaded his wife to spend a summer there while she finally finishes her career-saving book on childhood in the Romantic era and helps start up their self-catering business in a converted ‘blackhouse’. The blackhouse, former dwelling of indigenous islanders (and their animals) in 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 struggles with feelings of guilt, hating the mechanics of motherhood even though she loves her children. She 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.’ Giles rarely helps with the children or looking after the house, and Anna’s exhaustion and feelings of resentment lead to a sense for a while that the marriage might collapse. Some of her reflections during the night are quite dark, but this is quite refreshing as it is unusual to read of some of the more bleak experiences of being a mother.
When Giles and Anna rent the blackhouse out to a family for two weeks, the visitors bring with them their own relationship issues, which impinge on the Oxford family. Anna and the death-obsessed Raph also discover the body of a newborn baby in the garden of their house, and a police inquiry adds another complication to their stay.
‘The novel is interspersed with letters written by May, a nurse from Manchester, who arrived on Colsay at the end of the nineteenth century. She had been employed by Giles’s ancestors to study the high infant mortality rates on the island. These letters link in well with the discovery of the unidentified infant found in the garden. The reaction of the local people to May raise the issue of philanthropists and how well-intentioned acts are not necessarily accepted or successful. 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.
“Some of us found the first few chapters tedious and the focus on Anna’s inability to effectively carry out any task irritating, but maybe that is a true representation of life accompanied by night waking. Some members wished the characters, especially the men, had been developed further, and others that the book was overambitious in trying to weave too many elements together, including some academic ideas. This book, however, will resonate with anyone who has wrestled with the loss of independence and the loss of any sense of achievement that being a parent of young children inevitably brings. Anna is very aware that she is flawed: she has dark, dark moments in reconciling her daily frustrations of repetition and boredom with her love of her children. The inventive humour in the book sometimes surfaces at these darkest times. We thought the use of the children’s storybooks very clever and the dialogue with the children extremely funny – on occasions laugh out loud. The twin strengths of humour (the description of Anna breastfeeding at a formal College dinner will remain with us) 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