It's a sign of a really good author, I think, when so many emotions can be elicited from one story. And the prose and tone of the storytelling matches the period and place, too. Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss does so many things at once--it pained me and made me feel revulsion and anger, yet there is a triumph of spirit in the quietest of ways, which offers hope. Mostly though, I found the story utterly riveting. Even while I shuddered at the things that Ally had to endure, I never once wanted to put the book aside.
The story opens very hopefully with the engagement and marriage of Elizabeth and Alfred. She's the daughter of rather conservative and church going parents but is quite different from her sister Mary. Alfred is an artist who will come into great fame with his paintings and textile designs. At first introduction she seems open and willing to learn beauty from him. She thinks--"she is all his". She wants to begin their life together without clutter, with simplicity. And he thinks "in time, as she learns his world, she will see beyond her parents' limits." He believes she will see beauty and open like a flower. Already there are signs of the pair working at cross purposes.
It begins sometime in the mid-1800s, firmly in the middle of the age of Victoria. Elizabeth, soon to be Mrs. Moberley, is a firebrand when it comes to social justice. She is an eager student of her mother's teachings of the possibilities for women--if not of the methods her mother uses to teach control. When her mother makes her put a stone in her shoe, which she must then lace up tight to remind her how she has caused disappointment and learn self-control, she simply takes it out and pretends it has been there all along. This is where she differs from her own eldest daughter, Alethea, or Ally as she is known.
Like Elizabeth and her sister Mary, Ally and her younger sister May couldn't be more different. Lessons learned as a child are not easy to shake off and despite the beauty of their marriage it becomes increasingly obvious that Elizabeth and Alfred are entirely mismatched, and each persues their own passion. And each has their own idea of how to raise their daughters, sometimes using them as pawns in their own disagreements. Elizabeth is driven to see her daughters, her daughter Ally in particular, to come into their own as women in this world of oppression. Her church groups have made so many strides, done so much good in the poor areas of Manchester. And Ally and May are not once allowed to forget their own bounty when so many around them have so little. Never once will the girls be allowed to forget. They must never do anything to shame their mother--especially in the eyes of her own mother. And there is hell to pay if they do.
Just as Elizabeth and Mary are diametrically opposite in their personalities and outlooks, so too are Ally and May. Maybe May, being the younger, simply was 'cossetted' more. Ally, though, takes it all to heart. She has learned her lessons well, even more so than her mother ever did, or that her mother will ever realize. Whereas Elizabeth understood the lesson and the punishment, she found ways around it, Ally will not let herself off the hook. She is terrorized by her mother in such a way that even when she is alone she punishes herself and drives herself and when her accomplishments are lacking. And never will she forget the riches of her lifestyle (always muted by their mother's passions despite their father's more bohemian lifestyle) when so many have so little.
It sounds pretty dire, doesn't it? It is a shudder-generating story at times. It's maddening to see a mother push a daughter to the limits. It's maddening to see how reason is meant to be so sterile and cold because any show of emotion is hysteria and we all know what happens to hysterical women. They certainly don't become doctors, which is what Elizabeth wants for her daughter Ally. Mother-aunt-sisters-daughters . . .this is such an interesting juxtaposition of personalities, of time and environment. Sarah Moss has created such a remarkable world, one entirely believable and even as what Ally must endure is hard to see at times, you never once give up hope and want to see her story through to the end.
It's early days yet, but I can already call this a favorite read of the year. Moss has a sequel to the story, which already sits on my bedside reading pile just waiting for its turn, Signs for Lost Children. I am eager to see where Ally's life takes her. I won't give anything away, but I will say that there is a sense of triumph for Ally in Bodies of Light as she makes her way to London to study to become one of England's first women doctors. And while her early life has so much pain and so little love, she finds a happier place once she becomes more independent. This was my February prompt, and I hope to write about this month's prompt book soon. Highly recommended.