Nowadays it is raging toothache or a trip to the bathroom which disturbs my sleep. But I well recall the days when it was a wakeful child. Many a night my husband and I would end up in different beds, or separated in our own by a toddler who snored blissfully until morning whilst we tossed and turned. But in many ways, the morning-after-the-night-before was worse; like a hangover but without the fun. Gritty eyes, swimming vision, dropping off to sleep every time you sit down. Sarah Moss captures all of this beautifully in her second novel, ‘Night Waking‘.
Anna Bennett has been brought to Colsay, a Scottish island, because of her husband’s work; he researches puffins. The couple have a seven-year old son, Raphael, and also a baby, Moth – the latter being short for Timothy but I suspect the name is also indicative of the fact that this tot is so active at night, drawn to his mother like lepidoptera to a bright light. What Anna really wants to do is to get on with the book she is trying to write, focusing on motherhood from a historical perspective.
Whilst working outside their cottage, planting some trees, Anna unearths the body of a baby. Of course, this necessitates a visit from the police who try to discover the identity of the child, but Anna uses her research skills to try to find out for herself who may have buried a child on this remote island. Interwoven with Anna’s own story is that of May, a young nurse who was sent to Colsay in 1878, to try to reduce the number of juvenile deaths. The novel also has extracts from the various texts which Anna is using to carry out her own research.
But Anna is so tired all the time, she struggles to concentrate and spends most of each day trying to reclaim some time to work. Temporary relief arrives in the form of teenage Zoe, whose parents take a holiday let in Anna and Giles’ rental cottage nearby. Zoe likes the children and seems content to babysit for a while, but it turns out that she has her own issues, which make yet another call on Anna’s precious time.
I found the author’s portayal of Anna’s predicament to be true to life, including the charming and ofen funny way in which Moss scripts the dialogue between Anna and the boys. However, there was just too much going on in this book and it didn’t quite hang together properly for me, it was just trying too hard. I would have been happy with considering the tensions and guilt of working motherhood, the isolation of a Scottish island and maybe the historical perspective. But adding in teenage anorexia, Raph’s unusual preoccupations, Anna’s research, Giles’ apparent unconcern at his wife’s exhaustion, infant tetanus, a child who goes over a cliff, a dead baby…..it all felt as jumbled as Anna’s sleep-deprived thoughts. I might be tempted to read another of Moss’ books, to give her a second chance, but I really wasn’t sold on this one, despite its Hebridean setting. Or maybe I’m just tired….