I am so very glad to have found this book.
A few things led to this lovely discovery. First of all, a video by the lovely Jen Campbell titled very simply ‘You Should Read This’. She is 100% correct – this is my favourite read of the year so far, and a book I will not forget. I then realised that Topping and Company Booksellers of Bath were hosting an event with Sarah Moss in July, so I got myself a ticket, and on that evening I got my signed copy.
This is an absolutely exemplary exploration of family life and trauma, embedded so fantastically in contemporary life. This is very much a novel of the ‘now’, covering very specific events and anxieties, which I think is an incredibly brave choice to make as an author, and makes the book fascinating to read. Reading today, things are instantly recognisable, and I’m interested how that may change for readers a year or ten from now.
Moss’s writing is not only fantastic in the specificity of her observations. Her writing is exquisitely beautiful in so many moments that I started reading with sticky notes beside me so I could mark the most breath-taking passages to revisit. Admittedly, when I started reading I may have been having an emotional day, but this paragraph from the close of the first chapter takes my breath away:
Suddenly, your heart began; suddenly in the darkness of your mother’s womb there was a crackle and a flash and out of nothing, the current began to run. Suddenly you began to breathe. Suddenly, you still stop, you and me and all of us. Your lungs will rest at last and the electric pulse in your pulse will vanish into the darkness from which it came.
Put your fingers in your ears, lay your head on the pillow, listen to the footsteps of your blood.
You are alive.
The novel follows stay-at-home father Adam Goldschmidt, and the events surrounding his fifteen-year-old daughter Miriam’s cardiac arrest. She is found at school by a teacher, having stopped breathing in the middle of a field, and it is Adam who receives that awful phone call. This is layered with two parallel narratives – that of Adam’s research into the history of Coventry Cathedral, and the story of his father growing up in America, and the choice he made to leave and live in Cornwall.
Geographical location plays a hugely important part in the book. The contrast of Adam’s childhood in rural Cornwall and his life now in a city townhouse, where the nearest green spaces are public parks, was something that resonated with me. Adam misses that openness, but at the same time it has come to scare him – for me emphasised by the fact that Miriam’s ‘incident’ takes place on the playing field of the school, away from the buildings, and he knows how lucky they were that a teacher found her. He is drawn to those areas of calm and nature within built-up spaces, but he fears them as well, which we beautifully see him learning to accept as he allows Miriam gradually more physical freedom – initially pushing her out, although those trips and touched with fear and neuroticism about her epi-pen. The centrality of Coventry Cathedral, as a space Adam not only visits but is understanding academically to produce a geolocative media app (audio guide), plays interestingly to this tension between city and country, with its history.
I could list forever the things I loved about this book. The characters are entirely fully-formed and multi-faceted, their relationships are so subtly drawn, the separate layers of story function together beautifully, the pace sits perfectly and the voice of Adam has a brilliant balance. The humour of the family moments Moss captures made me smile, in how well she portrays the things we might take for granted, while acknowledging entirely why.
It is impossible, Adam knows, to always be aware of what we could lose. It wouldn’t be possible to function if we looked all the ways that our lives could go wrong in the eye. Being aware doesn’t let you relax enough to enjoy the ‘ordinary extraordinary’ hours and days, instead it puts you in a prison of fear that interferes with your relationships. It is the central struggle that Adam’s family must find a way to live with, and Moss lets the story acknowledge this on both personal and global scales.
The beauty of the passages about Coventry Cathedral is also to be admired – the character of Moss’ narrator is subtly present in these chapters which could easily have become a recitation of facts, but it is clearly Adam who tells us these things, and sorts through his own trauma and worry by trying to understand how a community, how an architect and an artist goes about rebuilding something so central when it has come down, both in the moment and in the months and years to follow. How money and love have to compromise against each other to find a way, and how people work together to make it possible.
Perhaps it isn’t for everyone – if you’re looking for a very plot-driven story rather than reflective and character driven narrative, this might not be your cup of tea. Personally though, it is my precise taste, as well as being a masterful example of novel writing. It is my favourite read of the year so far, and now a permanent addition to my favourites list.