Novel set in Falmouth and Japan (“an exquisite novel of the 1880s”)

  • Book: Signs for Lost Children
  • Location: Japan
  • Author: Sarah Moss

Review Author: tripfiction



One of the Financial Times Best Books of 2015.


It is the1880s. Tom and Ally are recently married but Tom’s job takes him to Japan where he is to advise on building a lighthouse, whilst Ally keeps the home fires burning in Falmouth. She is one of the first women to qualify as a doctor and is dipping her toe in the water and trying to reform the care and treatment of women with mental health issues, who are incarcerated in a local asylum.

Improving conditions in such an institution is a thankless task and Ally struggles to make headway with both the patients and the embedded strictures of the place. All the while the cutting voice of her mother burrows away in her head – her mother impresses on Ally time and again, how she, virtuously and with no self regard, has sacrificed everything in her life to be able to devote herself to the needs of the poor, but by so doing has alienated her family members through her haranguing self denial. Ally is in a permanent state of anxiety and apprehension around her mother, whether she is physically present or not.

Tom – whilst in Kyoto, Japan – has been tasked to bring back items of Japanese art and finery for a collector in Falmouth, and relishes the newness and difference that he encounters in this utterly foreign land. The quality of the author’s description is beguiling and nuanced.

There are many different levels in this book, strands that weave and come together. Tom is learning about Japanese folklore, and understanding how madness is explained away by the notion that foxes inhabit the brains of the mentally unstable (yet paradoxically they are also revered on occasion). This neatly dovetails with the work that Ally is doing back in Falmouth. Her work, however, continues to be exacerbated by her own mother’s continually droning ‘voice’, her acute self denial governs still governs Ally’s every move. It is clear that the author has a great interest in mental health issues.

Both husband and wife struggle to understand the unique environment in which they each find themselves and each has to face their own demons and disconnectedness, which then reverberate back into their marital dynamics. Can they resurrect some kind of connection and normality once Tom returns from his travels, or have their personal and individual experiences changed them beyond repair?

There are wonderful little insights into the culture of the time, especially in Japan, where, for example in Tokyo there was already piped water, whilst in London the authorities were still struggling with typhoid and cholera (and cholera, of course is spread through contaminated water, as the authorities soon come to discover). The ‘Signs for Lost Children’ of the title is a phenomenon Tom discovers whilst out in Japan, and that strand appears in various guises – often ephemeral –  throughout. There is also evident delight in the objets d’art that Tom sources – the cloths and the delicately carved netsuke, and pleasure in the little observations of Japanese Custom, beautifully rendered. A rewarding and well written book with creatively tackled subject matter. The book deserves a wider audience.

This review first appeared on our blog

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