Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 31, 2014

Bodies of Light (2014), by Sarah Moss

Bodies of LightI know that love works in mysterious ways – but there’s something not quite right about the relationships in Sarah Moss’s third novel, Bodies of Light…

Sarah Moss is an acclaimed young British novelist –  a graduate of Oxford and currently Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick.  She writes like an angel but somehow her characters in this novel don’t seem to belong with one another, and the parallels across the generations are a little too neat to be entirely convincing.  Dominating the exquisite descriptions of artists and the manner of their work that put me in mind of William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite English artist and textile designer, is a portrait of a grim, evangelical reform movement and its tyrannical protofeminist disciples.  These movements did exist side-by-side in Victorian England, but how their adherents might ever have been attracted to one another remains a mystery to me.

The book is structured by ten chapters, each of which begins with a ‘catalogue entry’ about an artwork whose subject matter alludes indirectly to what is to come.  The first painting is titled ‘Annunciation’,  by Alfred Moberley in 1856, and yes, there’s a pregnancy.  The painting’s provenance is established, including that it was ‘bequeathed to the National Gallery 1918’- a hint that perhaps a family dies out at that time.   The last chapter’s item is a decorated fan, by Aubrey West, donated by Alethea Moberley Cavendish to the Falmouth Polytechnic Institute in 1929.   All the paintings are by Moberley and by West and the galleries which hold them (the National Gallery, the Musee D’Orsay) establish that these are artists of some consequence.

Bodies of Light apparently shares a character with Moss’s second novel Night Waking but it’s neither a sequel nor a prequel; it’s a standalone novel set in a period of history but not an historical novel.  It has a contemporary sensibility, and although the historical detail is stunningly effective, Bodies of Light is  interested in social and cultural movements and how they impact on the preoccupations of individuals.  It’s also a coming-of-age novel, one in which the central character Ally has to reconcile the conflicting personalities of her parents, both of whom fail her in different ways.

May is the light-hearted and sensual sister of Ally, more properly known as Alethea, a name which seemed to me to symbolise the disconnect between her parents rather than a compromise:

The baby is called Alethea, a compromise between his stubborn fancy for a Greek name and her insistence on one that stated moral ambition on the child’s behalf.  Penelope, indeed.  Who would want a daughter named for a rich pagan woman remembered only for doing her knitting?  Martha, she says, Mamma suggests Martha.  But Martha, he said, was a sanctimonious charwoman.  A worker, she said, a woman worker rewarded for diligence and humility.  Alethea, truth-teller.  The truth shall set you free. (p.38)

The irony is that Alethea  turns out to be every bit as loyal, patient, determined and clever as Penelope was, and her childhood teaches her to suppress the truth with silence and self-harm.  She is the product of a dysfunctional marriage between two people who should never have married each other in the first place.  They have nothing in common, and Moss fails to establish why the artistic, genial Alfred was ever attracted to the dour Elizabeth, a religious zealot and control freak who puts stones in her children’s shoes so that they repent of their misdemeanours all day.

It seems to have been some kind of religious quest that made Elizabeth decide to marry him.  Both of them are out to change the other, from the start: Elizabeth prays that Alfred will be brought into the light so that they can walk together in righteousness, and Alfred – wholly disinterested in the Christianity that fills her days with empowering charitable works – expects her to cast off her frugal habits:

In time, he thinks, as she learns his world, she will see beyond her parents’ limits.  He will show her beauty, pleasure; north light falling through high windows onto white marble limbs, human voices in duet filling the opera house like waves taking a beach, glasses of red wine by candlelight; glories of which she has been deprived all her life, and she will open like a flower in the warmth of his knowledge.  (p. 7)

Well, she doesn’t. Unlike her sister Mary who casts off Mamma’s strictures and marries comfortably to enjoy the good things of life, Elizabeth maintains the role imposed on her.  Elizabeth is a protofeminist who seeks to improve the lives of women by rejecting elegance and luxury – even basic comforts – as a waste of time, energy and women’s potential.  Since girlhood she has worked with Mamma at rescuing ‘fallen women’ from prostitution, and teaching them industrious habits along with spiritual cleansing.  Her daughters Ally and May are to be the same…

The characterisation of sober-sides Elizabeth and her light-hearted sister Mary repeats itself with the uber-serious Ally and the slightly more frivolous May.  Aided and abetted by her father and his artistic friend Aubrey, May delights in pretty things and expensive cakes.   She does what she’s told, most of the time, but her mother’s punitive cruelties are shed along with the clothes she leaves carelessly on the floor.  Both girls are – curiously –  allowed to model for the artists: this seems strange considering Elizabeth’s religiosity, but she accepts Arthur’s assurance that female bodies are mere ‘patterns of light and form, shapes and colours’.  Elizabeth has a kind of wilful blindness to the risks she imposes on her daughters, insisting that they travel as working class women do and that they deny themselves every conceivable comfort because working class women suffer privations far worse.

Ally buys into the guilt, devotion and duty regime, and desperate to avoid her mother’s insatiable disapproval, becomes a studious, diligent young woman.  She trains as a doctor in a period when there was no certainty that she could ever practise once qualified.   She is oblivious to friendship, personal ambition or a sense of pride in her own accomplishments.  How this rigid, self-denying young woman manages to allow herself to take an interest in any young man is as much a mystery to me as was her parents’ odd relationship.  It’s just not quite convincing enough.

Still, this is a captivating novel.  These puzzling aspects of the relationships only make me want to re-read the book once more!

Author: Sarah Moss
Title: Bodies of Light
Publisher: Granta, 2014
ISBN: 9781847089083
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


Fishpond:  Bodies of Light


  1. An interesting idea stories of pictures love it and using it to build the book a different way of writing


    • Yes, I thought so too. I’d like to read her other two novels as well:)


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