12. ‘Signs for Lost Children’ by Sarah Moss

Two things made me take this book out of the library. First, this rather pretty cover inspired my to pick it up. Second, the blurb reads, ‘Tom Cavendish goes to Japan to build lighthouses and his wife Ally begins her work at the Truro asylum’. I love books set in Japan, and I was born in Truro so … no brainer.


Still, I didn’t have terribly high hopes for the story, which is about a newly married couple in the 1880s, divided by distance when he goes to Japan for work. I thought it sounded possibly a little twee, and when I started reading it trod the fine line between ‘pretentious but ultimately empty’ and ‘poetically written with substance’ for a while. And then, several chapters in, I finally bought into it and came down firmly in the latter camp – this isn’t just pretty sounding writing with nothing behind it; I found myself compelled by the characters, the philosophy and the plot.

The Japan chapters were quite beautiful. I thought Moss did a great job of evoking the Zen-like life philosophy of the Japanese characters as seen through the eyes of someone from an alien background. There are descriptions of bath houses and food and gardens and works of art, all with this compelling, meditative style, and more mystical and spiritual ideas are sensitively explored. This half of the book tells the story of Tom Cavendish as he falls hard in love with Japan, to the extent whether you wonder if he will ever want to leave.

The other half of the book is about his wife, Ally, a female doctor who has far from the mind-enriching experience that Tom has while he is away. Instead she must struggle, not only to be accepted (by both men and women) as a female professional in a male-dominated world, but also against her domineering mother and her persistent guilt that she is not doing enough with her life. Ally’s mother is a truly dreadful woman, so driven by Christian charity that she absolutely neglects to show her own child even one shred of tenderness. Add to Ally’s problems her grief over her drowned sister, whose voice also haunts her conscience, and you have a woman who is forced to struggle with her own mental health while she treats the psychological ailments of other women who have, finally, tipped over the edge.

I found this book very rich, and although I loved the Japanese setting, Ally’s chapters – with their vivid portrayals of sexism and the oppression of women – were definitely my favourites (plus they totally mentioned places I know). By the end of the story my heart was racing at the prospect that Tom might not come home, and I just wanted to see the pair happily reunited so that Ally could, at last, have some genuine warmth and affection in her life.

Despite going into this book knowing nothing about it, and not having particularly high expectations for it, I found Signs for Lost Children really beautifully written and a very captivating story.

“It is not her experience, nor the experience of any woman she knows, that a highly educated mind brings either virtuous contentment or settled principles … indeed, the unsettling of contentment should be an object of women’s education.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

What do you think?

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