Today I am joined again by my friend Laura who reviewed Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt with me. She writes the book blog Little Book Fiend and can be found on Twitter @laurabookfiend.
★★★★★ (5 stars) from both of us.
Synopsis from Goodreads: Bodies of Light is a deeply poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous nineteenth century upbringing set in the atmospheric world of Pre-Raphaelitism and the early suffrage movement. Ally (older sister of May in Night Waking), is intelligent, studious and engaged in an eternal – and losing – battle to gain her mother’s approval and affection. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a religious zealot, keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally wins a scholarship and is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn’t seem good enough.
Why did I read this book?
L: I really enjoyed Sarah Moss’s book “Cold Earth”, which I read earlier this year. I was keen to give another one of her books a go and the blurb of this one really captured my interest. After reading this book, I am definitely keen to read more of her writing, too!
H: Mostly because I loved the other Sarah Moss books I’ve read – Night Waking and Cold Earth (needless to say I was happy to discover that Bodies Of Light is the first in a two-part series) but also because I enjoy books set in Victorian Britain, especially those living in the more radical parts of society.
Favourite thing about the book:
L: I loved this book! It is so rich it’s hard for me to pick my favourite thing out so many good points. However, I think my favourite thing was the overall “radical” feel to the book. It captures in its pages a moment in history where the world is changing, where traditional ideas are being challenged, where women are starting to rise up and make their voices heard, to fight for the right to a proper education and professions. It is one of those novels that really connects you to history and not just lives of the characters in it, but to women throughout the whole of history, and the present day too.
H: Bodies Of Light is a very pro-women, feminist, book. It shows what women in the 19th Century had to cope with which echo issues that women still have to deal with now, especially where family and motherhood are concerned (it asks the eternal question of whether you can “have it all”, and one of the early sections has an excellent description of PND. In this way the novel follows on from Night Waking which addressed some of these concerns). Here are a couple of (sadly) timeless quotes about women from Bodies Of Light:
• “men dismiss women’s opinions because the woman expressing herself is pretty, or because she is plain, because she is young or old, single or married, because, in the end, all women’s speech is considered to be merely personal”
• “There are hosts of women, in the Bible as well as in sermons, who are condemned because their care more for their clothes than their salvation. One can also be condemned for the opposite offence”
L: + Sarah Moss’s writing style is stunningly beautiful and a joy to read. She creates a very powerful impression on the reader of places, situations and emotions, which made this book all the more absorbing.
+ In particular, I felt that Ally’s feelings of anxiety and panic were very realistically portrayed. Sarah Moss creates a strong claustrophobic feeling that conveys Ally’s distress in an uncomfortably real way.
+ Ally’s subtle strength. I love her development as a character, a woman and a doctor throughout this book, escaping her mother’s tyranny, to become someone who knows her own mind and follows her own path.
H: + I loved how drawn into the time period I was by this book. I learned a lot about Victorian life (how hard laundry was, for a start!), but also realised how alike our lives then and now are. It is definitely one of my favourite historical periods to read about, because, as the character Aubery says:
“I often think that if I could choose any time to be born, and any place in the world to live, I would probably choose to be here and now. Think of the opportunities, the ships and railways, the Empire opening up at our feet, the new inventions and discoveries.”
+ The description of Victorian style, especially where interior design (which May and Ally’s father specialises in) was concerned, really appealed to me – all the lavish wallpapers and little carved designs in the furniture.
+ As mentioned earlier, there is a truly great description of PND/baby blues that shows it’s a condition that’s (sadly) been with women forever, that the negative emotions of being overwhelmed by the baby’s needs, not getting enough sleep, feeling like a failure if you ask for help are, of course, timeless.
+ The novel’s characters are complex – no-one is wholly good or bad – just as in real life.
+ The cover!
Least favourite thing about the book:
L: I didn’t really feel the descriptions of the paintings at the beginning of each chapter added much to the book. I found them a bit tedious to be honest!
H: Bodies Of Light‘s style took me a while to get into as Sarah Moss emulates a Victorian style (which admittedly isn’t my favourite, hence me reading very, very few classic novels of my own volition) but once I got used to it it didn’t hamper my enjoyment and I can understand that it was necessary in order for the novel to have a convincing voice.
L: Nothing other than that. This is a fabulous book, very hard to fault.
H: – I found it hard to understand why Alfred and Elizabeth married/initially attracted to each other, even with the inclusion of chapters describing their courtship/early married life.
L: Mary. While Mary is not without her flaws (e.g. she allows her children to be beaten for misbehaviour), I liked her for the much-needed warmth with which she treats Ally. She is a kind, loving contrast to her sister, Lizzie. I also think she is a very important character in this book as she demonstrates that people can break free from oppressive, destructive upbringings, and is therefore a very positive influence for Ally to have around.
H: It’s hard to say. Not Alfred, because although I liked the sound of his art and he was a good dad to Ally at the start (though he still feels it should be his wife’s job to parent) he treats his daughters differently and favours May. I liked Aubrey but not the direction his relationship with May took. May seemed selfish at times and seemed not to realise how easy she had things compared to her sister, so maybe Aletha, though she wasn’t very dynamic.
L: Elizabeth, Ally and May’s mother (and Mary’s sister). Lizzie is an almost impossible character to like, someone who does good work but is not a good person. Despite the apparent kindness she shows the poor women she works with, she is cruel and lacking in compassion, particularly toward Ally. Her heartbreaking, destructive mistreatment of her daughter is utterly reprehensible. I loved, however, the fact that the early sections of this book were narrated by Lizzie, so we could get an insight into her own experiences. Her attitude very much mirrors that of her mother, and likewise Lizzie’s relationship with her mother shows strong similarities to her relationship with Ally.
H: Elizabeth. So unforgiving and strict and tough on Ally especially (though she does so because she feels it is right, so can I really dislike her for it?)
I recommend this book to:
L: ~ Those who like historical fiction that explores social issues.
~ Anyone who has read and enjoyed any of Sarah Moss’s other books.
H: ~ Feminists.
~ Those interested in Victorian Britain.