For Ally Moberley, a pioneering woman doctor in Victorian England who has just made a happy marriage, the future seems bright until the groundbreaking nature of her role, working with mentally troubled female patients, and a return to the stresses of her childhood begin to threaten her own peace of mind.
Matching exceptionally fine prose with pinpoint sensitivity, British novelist Moss (Bodies of Light, 2014, etc.) delivers a thoughtful account of one intelligent, sometimes-fragile woman’s response to a dark, dynamic era. Late-19th-century England thrums with industry, yet the living conditions of its workers are often desperate. Though Ally’s mother was zealously devoted to serving the poor, she lacked compassion for her own children, and Ally, now 30, bears the psychic scars of a cruel childhood. She graduated top of her class from medical school, however, and is newly married to Tom Cavendish, a kindly engineer and lighthouse builder. After a brief period of marital harmony in Cornwall, Tom must depart on a monthslong working trip to Japan, leaving Ally alone, first studying at a local mental asylum and later returning to the harsh family home in Manchester. Chapters narrated in a close third-person from Ally’s perspective, tracing her professional and personal challenges, are intercut with chapters following Tom, who finds himself increasingly enraptured by Japanese culture. Whether evoking Cornish weather, Manchester’s manufacturing grind, or exquisite Japanese vistas, Moss brings lambent detail and humane character analysis to a larger conversation about what threatens women’s sanity—grief, rage, pain, sick households, abusive men. Though too long, slowed by its seriousness and research, and then lifted by a rather-too-neat solution to Ally’s health and employment dilemmas, this is nevertheless a rich work; the quality of its writing and its empathy shine through.
A delicate, forgiving consideration of mental health and healing.