Anna is an Oxford Academic currently living on the tiny island of Colsay, in the North of Scotland, which her husband Giles has inherited. She has two sons - Raph and Moth - and is attempting to finish the book she is writing, while Giles counts the Puffin population and tries to understand why the numbers are declining. Anna sees herself as a historian and is highly resentful of being a full time mother without help, with little to amuse the children and a husband who has high standards regarding shop brought bread, etc, but who happily disappears all day and leaves her to cope. Her desperation and sleep deprivation is so well written that it will be understood immediately by all mothers of young children, as will Giles offhand manner I suspect! Part of the book takes place during the night, when Anna goes to soothe Moth, who still wakes and cries. Giles feels that taking the toddler into the bed 'sets a precedent' although in order to get some sleep, just about every mother (assuming they can't face controlled crying, which I certainly could not) give in sooner or later. Anna is very hard on herself and feels she is being judged harshly by almost everyone, including herself. The first half of the book establishes the personalities involved and is absolutely brilliant writing - Anna's feminist retellings of various childrens picture books actually had me laughing out loud! I also adored Anna's retelling of the Gruffalo - which mother of a young child cannot recite it word for word?!
Into this very self contained life, the outside world comes intruding, after Anna and Raph dig up a small skeleton while planting trees. The baby has lain, undisturbed, for many years and the police begin to investigate. This is not a crime book as such though, as the story has more to do with how the discovery affects Anna and her children and the secrets that all families hold. When another family also arrive, to stay in the holiday cottage that Giles is hopefully wishing will make some money, the dynamics on the island change again. Each chapter ends with a letter from a visitor to the island long ago, which is parallel to Anna's investigations of who the baby could be. However, this is not just another historical fiction book with stories running in the present and the past. The book is rooted firmly with Anna and the letters from the past are mere glimpses into what has been. It is also a very interesting account of what happened to a rural and remote community and the way that Giles, and his ancestors, are resented as owners of the 'big house'.
I cannot praise this book enough. This is really intelligent and brilliantly written fiction, from a master storyteller. Cold Earth was a fantastic book, but I have to say that this is even better. Sarah Moss is fast becoming one of my favourite authors of all time and it is no exaggeration to say that she should be winning major awards. I would recommend this book highly - read it, love it and recommend it to everyone you can. It really is that good and I look forward, with pleasure, to reading anything else by this fabulous author.
on 20 July 2014
This book is a description of its time, location, class relations through time, and the arcane world of academic politics, though it is more obviously a book about the struggle many mothers of young children experience while trying to hold a sense of themselves in the face of exhaustion and the conflicting needs of two developing, distinct, and very strong personalities.
Anna is a historian and, while she is an Oxford fellow, seems to regard herself as punching above her weight among her upper class, and very judgmental, cohorts. Her husband, an ornithologist, fits more easily into this milieu, something she finds herself resenting. Their retreat to his family’s property on a remote island in Scotland, where he is researching the declining local population of puffins and refurbishing part of the property as a holiday let conflicts with her need of large blocks of time to complete a historical work for publication without library access and only intermittent web access, one child who is obsessed with disasters and ecological disaster, and a toddler who is an insomniac. As an academic, her training has caused her to be as critical of her own actions as she is about those of others. However, this also makes her an acute observer of the situations in which she finds herself. Others have commented that Anna is not a sympathetic character for much of the book, but that is not the point, any more than romance is the sole point of Pride and Prejudice.
This book will ring a lot of bells with mothers of young children, but more especially with women who are also trying to use their own professional accomplishments to inform their place in family and, by extension, in society. The sections dealing with May’s experience as an educated woman trying to work with the islanders during the 19th century show how disastrous the results can be when this balance cannot be accomplished.
on 10 September 2012
This is an accurate portrayal of a young mother shackled to a toddler's constant demands - being woken at 2 am night after night after night, exhaustion, lack of mental stimulus, not being able to get on with your own work, life, etc.
Although while it's happening it is seemingly everlasting, conversations of the type one has with a toddler can become repetitive and rather tedious in the context of a novel. At least, that is how it felt to me for the first part of this story. Admittedly, Moth's demands (strange name until you realise it's short for Timothy) are interspersed with extracts of Anna's text for an academic book she is trying to write. But to me these sounded like an attempt to make the story deeper than it was, weighty rather than trivial. As such they seemed forced and contrived and, in such detail, out of place in a novel. Seven-year-old Raph, meanwhile, is working on various engineering projects with a view to saving the planet, and husband Giles is getting on with his research into puffins.
Finding bones buried in the garden leads Anna to a different aspect of research, and upsets Raph. The back-story of a young English nurse confronted with infant mortality (reminiscent of that prevalent in nineteenth century St Kilda and brought to life in Island of Wings, by Karin Altenberg) is interesting but only briefly touched upon.
Although well written, as one who lives on a Hebridean island I felt no sense of the islands or their people. Anna's character is fully developed though, so you feel as if you know her and suffer with her. Giles, on the other hand, is an empty shell. He hails from a wealthy background, is chauvinistic, shows little sympathy for his wife's exhaustion and for most of the story makes no attempt to help or encourage her. Endlessly counting puffins for his research, he leaves her to look after the children, juggle her time to cover academic commitments while Moth snoozes after lunch, and become ever more weary and worn.
The comment on the front cover of this edition implies that the book is hilarious but I didn't find it at all funny, not in the laugh-out-loud sense anyway. However, I could appreciate the witty or wry comments.
It's a story that becomes more interesting as it proceeds, especially after the first family arrives to occupy the cottage that Giles and Anna have been renovating, but it never gripped me to the point that I didn't want to put it down.
on 13 January 2016
I have read a couple of Sarah Moss books before and really enjoyed them. This is a book about a family who relocate to an isolated, very distant Scottish Island that had been left to the husband, Giles, who comes from a privileged background. Alex is an academic. Basically, it's a 'lovely' chocolate box, middle class family who want to get away from it all and think that moving somewhere completely alien to them is going to be a wonderful, straight forward easy option. There are two children - Raph who is a very complex little character. Obsessed with deep thinking and death and Moth who is completely mothered by Alex and seems to rule the roost. As ever with Sarah Moss books there is always a mixture of the here and now and history - on this occasion a young woman who was imported onto the island at the end of the nineteenth century in order to try and address the extremely high incidence of babies dying within the first eight weeks of their life. Alex and the children then find the skeleton of a baby buried in the garden. It stimulates Alex to go and do some research about the history of the island and this, accompanied by Mary's letters (the girl who moved onto the island to help with the babies' deaths) gives us a knowledge of the specific history of this island. I absolutely adore Moss' writing. It drags you into the characters and they're described in a way that makes you feel you know all of them. They may be frustrating, spoilt, conceited, but they are still really characters. The book has a relatively slow start but then, by midway, you just have to keep reading. The ending is always though a bit of an anti climax and, reflecting, I think that this is often the case with Moss' books. Her writing is astoundingly good but the story, per se, is only ever mediocre. The book is always so hopeful - you get dragged in, get to know all the characters, the story develops and then the ending is always a bit of a damp squib. It's a book that's enjoyable and very worth reading but because of the writing rather than because of the story if you see what I mean? The other thing that has started to frustrate me about Moss' books is the portrayal of men. Before I say this I'll put it out there - I'm a feminist. The women in Moss' books are always the central characters and are very strong. The thing that I find sad about this is that she seems to find it necessary to have a rather pathetic, inept male character to play against a strong woman. Woman can be strong, we are strong, but I find it necessary and patronising the way that she always plays this against a weak man. It's not necessary and I find it increasingly unpalatable every time she does it. Right end of rant. Summary? It's a book that's worth a read.
I really enjoyed an earlier book by this author, Cold Earth, and read this book with great anticipation. The story is set on a remote island, where Giles, Anna and their two children are trying to make Giles' inheritance of an old house on the island pay, by living there in the summer and renting out a renovated cottage. Anna finds herself stifled by the role she is required to undertake - isolated from her friends, her work as an historian and her book writing, and her feeling of being unfit to be a good mother to her two sons; she finds herself becoming rather obsessed when the skeleton of what appears to be a young baby is found in their garden.
The arrival of visitors to stay in their renovated cottage brings relief, and problems all of its own. The reader is also intrigued by letters interspersed in the modern story from a young woman who had been a midwife on the island. The stories, and the Victorian lady's story, move on; I found, on reading the book, that the tone of the story lightened somewhat as it moved towards resolution; a resolution that does not, like life itself does not, finish neatly and with everything solved, but offers a way forward.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found myself both enlightened and entertained; the way a good book should. The story was about real people, with real lives; the juxtaposition between modernity and Victorian times, and the limbo in which the small island community lived, offered a unique way to view the modern world. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good, well-written and intelligent novel.
on 3 January 2015
In the early stages of reading this book I looked at the reviews of others and was initially influenced by them. I found Anna's parenting and resentment towards her children irritating.
How pleased I am that I didn't allow the negative reviews to stop me from reading onwards.
There is far more to this novel than the negative reviewers have apparently perceived. Yes, parenting styles are a feature of the novel but reading on allows one to see the issue in the context of history, geography, sociology, medicine and much more.
I would highly recommend this book. Please don't give up on it. To do so would be to lose out on an enlightening and incredibly interesting read.
I feel out of step with the other reviews here, because I found the book quite dull. Anna, mum of two, and Research Fellow, has gone to live on Colsay, a Scottish island, where her husband Giles, who owns said island, is trying to build an eco paradise. However, he's too busy counting puffins to realise that Anna is struggling to cope with being hemmed in with two small children, and supposedly writing a book. Then infant remains are found during their attempt to plant trees and Anna becomes obsessed with the dead baby. The plot is also interspersed with letters written by a Victorian nurse about her attempts to educate the islanders, and the arrival of a dysfunctional family to the holiday cottage. And so on. While the novel has some interesting things to say about the Highland clearances, it was neither unputdownable or funny. I found it unpickupable and repetitive, as well as a bit precious. The upper middle class family call their children Raphael - well you wouldn't him to get teased at school would you?! - and Moth, short for Ti-moth-y, geddit? The characters were either full on or scantily drawn, and the most interesting character was the tourist's teenage daughter, Zoe. This could have been a sharp satire on how the upper classes go to isolated places full of new age eco pipe dreams and fall on their faces. but it turned out to be a rather whiny saga about people who have it all and still can't cope. Spare me.
on 9 March 2011
This is a wonderful book: sharp and funny, sad and gripping. I was racing to the end to find out how it was all going to come together, and now want to go back and read it again slowly.
As with Cold Earth, the location is described so beautifully that I was almost surprised to look up and discover I wasn't on a remote Scottish island. The characters are compelling, the details of life with small children all-too-easy to recognise. The chapters in the form of letters in the past were horrible in their details of the absolutely poverty-stricken life lived by the island's inhabitants, and Sarah Moss conveyed the social injustices bleakly and subtly.
But this is not a tragic story: it is a funny and true to life one. I look forward very much to reading more by this author.
on 19 February 2013
I loved this book, after initially being very annoyed by Anna, the main protagonist.
Her domestic ineptitude seems a little contrived/far-fetched initially and you just want to give her a good shake.
But after that the various strands of history/social comment weave together and make a thought-provoking book about motherhood (particulary, although the role of fathers is also touched upon).
It left me with lots of unanswered questions (in a good way), and I really admired what the author did here. Not necessarily an "easy" read, but a satisfying one.
on 25 January 2012
Other people have had plenty to say about the plot, so I won't.
I knew nothing about neonatal tetanus before reading this book. Afterwards, I looked up neonatal tetanus on St Kilda and the appalling infant mortality it caused. I can imagine all too easily how, as a result, women could not bear to bond with their babies until they had survived their first eight days. If there's one thing to take away from this book it's the lesson to cut the cord with something sterile, and keep it clean.
Despite Anna's hideous sleep-deprivation (how she stays even halfway civil to Giles I have no idea) the awareness is very much here, in this book if not directly in Anna's narrative, that healthy loved children are a blessing. That blessing is all too easy to forget as you recite The Gruffalo for the eight hundredth time at three in the morning.
In the darkness of three in the morning it is also very easy to forget that the dawn comes eventually. Toddlers start sleeping through the night, the strain on marriages reduces, adolescents leave home (you hope) and careers can be re-established. I liked it that Anna's marriage is seen as a two-way street - it would be all too easy to demonise Giles - and I'm grateful for such a fine reminder of darkness and light.