Posted on 4th May 2011

By Fran Bigman, Reviews Editor, Fiction Uncovered

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Night Waking

Sarah Moss

One insomniac son obsessed with The Gruffalo, another with reducing his family’s carbon footprint, an book to finish on the Romantic view of childhood (they celebrated innocence while committing ever more children to orphanages and prisons), and a puffin-scientist husband with a knack for leaving the room just when nappies must be changed and children fed. Anna had her hands full even before husband Giles dragged everyone to his family’s ancestral Scottish island for the summer, but now she must contend with a macabre find; her death-obsessed seven-year-old discovers the skeleton of an infant in their backyard, touching off a police investigation that reveals secrets about the island, Giles’s family history, and Anna’s own complicated relationship to motherhood.

Night Waking, Moss’s second novel, is one of the funniest and most honest portrayals of parenting I have read, unafraid to tackle its darker side or impugn Anna’s likeability. Anna adores her children but worries that this adoration has pushed her too far into domestic life, derailing her academic career and eroding her marriage; she begins to resent her shirker husband, a bit of a cipher from a privileged background unlike her own. Forced to read Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea to her toddler son for the umpteenth time while his father is out with the puffins, she does a quick rewrite: “‘Good Morning,’ said the Tiger. ‘I’m here to symbolise the excitement and danger that is missing from your life of mindless domesticity. May I have some of your cake?’” Both the novel’s child characters, although precious at times, and its depiction of maternal ambivalence are more plausible than those found in the infamous novel on the subject, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003)—a powerful and prickly book, but more a nightmarish account of pathology than a tale from everyday life.

Night Waking manages to be both enjoyable and intellectually interesting, as it weaves historical perspectives on childhood in with Anna’s own—basically, nothing changes, and children are either savages or angels. While it attempts too much, including a subplot about an obnoxious woman who brings her own problems, including an anorexic teenage daughter, to the holiday cottage Anna and Giles are renovating on the island, the book’s clever structure keeps the plot moving. Anna’s attempts to juggle “intellectual and reproductive labor,” related in her darkly funny first-person voice, are interrupted by the letters of a nurse who came to the island in the 1870s to investigate its alarming infant death rate. Moss perhaps reveals too much when these threads converge in the ending, but it is a satisfying conclusion to a convincing portrait of one kind of modern motherhood.

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