Sarah Moss's debut, Cold Earth, was a stylish thriller set on a remote archaeological dig in Greenland. Here she takes the emotional isolation of early parenthood as her subject, intensifying the experience by transplanting a young family to a remote Scottish island.
Dr Anna Bennett, together with her husband Giles and two young sons, Raphael and Moth, have come to Colsay so he can monitor the puffin population and she can finish her book on 18th-century views on childhood. Yet snatched away from the comforts of her former Oxford life, Anna suddenly finds herself a household drudge, battling with Giles for precious time off from childcare. Her shrinking world is made yet more desolate by sleep deprivation. Sitting by Moth's cot, her fingers slowly slipping millimetre by millimetre from his hot grasp Anna imagines walking out of the house and into the sea until the "cold water rises in my lungs." One evening, as Moth once again refuses the arms of Morpheus, Anna fights the impulse to dash his skull against the wall.
Like Maggie O'Farrell and Rachel Cusk before her, Moss conjures up the bleaker shores of motherhood, a place where meanness and bad temper "trickle into the future like nuclear waste". Into this already toxic landscape she introduces a parallel narrative -- letters from a Victorian maternity nurse called May sent to Colsay to investigate the high rates of infant mortality on the island in the 1870s. May's epistles record her horror at finding these islanders living "like animals" and women suffering in a way that no "civilised nations should be asked to witness."
Moss's novel is a curious beast – part thriller, part satire and part paen to the wild Hebridean coastline. When a baby's skeleton is uncovered in the garden, Anna's fears about her abilities as a mother are further compounded. The shawl found wrapped around the baby's bones is too new to be a Pictish burial, and the reader, like the visiting constabulary, starts to question whether Anna might be more than just a frazzled mother.
A St Kilda-style tragedy, Neolithic neonates and quotes from the Romantics all jostle for our attention in a novel of ideas that itself feels jittery from lack of sleep. In her previous book, a character noted that there was "some peace in having a kind of room of my own, even if it is a grave." This latest work explores the concept further with some startling results.