I stood up and slammed my hand into the mattress next to his head. He screamed. I shook his cot.
‘Moth, for fuck’s sake go to sleep right now. If you don’t go to sleep this minute, I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to take a knife and kill myself. Is that what you want? Mummy will be dead and then you’ll be happy.’
My hands on the cot rail are shaking. I must not attack him. Must not touch him or I will put my hands round his neck and kill him. I cannot leave because I would never come back and I cannot stay because I am about to pick him up and ram his head into the wall until he stops making that intolerable noise.
‘Anna, what the hell are you doing?’
Giles grabbed my shoulder. I stopped myself before my fist connected with his arm.
‘I want three fucking minutes to myself. I want to pee. I want to have a drink of water. I want to brush my hair. I used to give lectures and write my book.’
It is apt, if unfortunate, that I’ve had trouble making my way through Sarah Moss’s Night Waking because I haven’t been sleeping well; by the time I’m done with reading I have to do, and do attentively, for deadlines, I have little energy left to concentrate on anything but a bit of Buffy. I’ll blame that same mental fatigue for my tendency to focus on the novel’s contemporary story without working as hard as the novel deserves to integrate it thematically with the interleaved historical material or to give due diligence to the epigraphs from various sources about child development.
I didn’t read Night Waking so badly that I couldn’t tell its parts are clearly all related, that they knit together into a pattern about the complexity of mother-child relationships and about motherhood as an intensely fraught role, both personally and socially. I just can’t articulate what that pattern is. Or maybe their collective point is not that intricate after all: maybe it is that, though we keep trying, it is impossible to “properly” understand or diagnose or theorize or perfect parenting: that really we all just muddle through in whatever way our historical and other circumstances dictate, and that there will always be someone there to judge us for doing it wrong even as there will always be at least a faint hope that, whether because of or in spite of us, things will turn out okay.
Alternatively, maybe my reading was unbalanced because Moss wrote Anna’s voice so well that she overpowered the other more overtly intellectual aspects of the novel. I loved Anna–and by that I don’t mean that I liked her necessarily, though I mostly did. In many ways, actually, she is just the kind of unlikable heroine that many critics celebrate today: she is fierce, angry, bleakly witty, dangerously honest about her hatred of the daily demands and inanities of her small children. She is a good mother (my epigraph notwithstanding), by which I mean she loves her children in the profound, helpless way that has also been my own experience of parental love; she is vigilant and responsive and self-critical. But she is also bored, resentful, and near despair at the chasm between the life she once lived–self-directed, intellectually challenging, contemplative–and her current mind-numbing isolation and exhaustion.
Night Waking takes place on the fictitious Hebridean island of Colsay. Anna, her husband Giles, and their children Raph (Raphael) and Moth (Timothy) have moved there from Oxford so Giles can do research on puffins and also so that they can oversee renovations to a family cottage they plan to (and eventually do) rent out. In theory, and sometimes in reality, Anna is finishing a book about the paradoxical relationship between the Romantic idealization of childhood and the contemporaneous trend towards putting children in a range of ‘care’ or oversight facilities: “boarding schools, orphanages, hospitals and prisons.” She sometimes discusses her research, and Moss even includes bits of the book, with Anna’s reflections on and revisions to it–she captures the academic tone and the self-consciousness of the academic writing process perfectly.
At first most of the tension of the novel comes directly from Anna’s personal situation, but when Anna and the children uncover a baby’s skeleton while digging in the garden, further layers accumulate. Anna becomes preoccupied with finding out the baby’s identity and thus gets drawn away from her book and into research on Colsay. We learn about the island with her, from her sources, and also from the 19th-century letters that make up yet another facet of the novel. The letters–which Anna eventually reads and incorporates into her work–are from May Moberly, younger sister of Alethea Moberly, the protagonist of Moss’s later novels Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children. (I somehow hadn’t realized that May’s story came first. On her website, Moss says “I knew quite a lot of May’s story when I finished writing Night Waking, although most of it wasn’t part of that book.”) May, a trained nurse, has been sent to Colsay, part of what turns out to be an unwelcome intervention into the island’s high rate of infant mortality.
All of these elements, and also Anna’s involvement with the family who come to Colsay to vacation in the cottage, are individually interesting and collectively resonant. What came through to me most clearly, though, was Anna herself: her struggles with guilt and boredom and sleeplessness–with the sometimes overwhelming conflict between love and desperation–while more extreme than my own, were completely, unhappily, familiar. As Night Waking ends, Anna’s life is changing for the better. If I’d read the novel fifteen years ago, I would have rejoiced in that cautious optimism, eagerly embracing the promise that balance can eventually return, as well as the message that it is both right and possible to reconcile being a parent with being (by) yourself. But now that my own children’s night wakings are long over and they are nearly independent, I am amazed and a bit frightened by how disorienting it is to face the very thing Anna and I both sometimes yearned for: their absence. Who knew–certainly Anna can’t imagine–that a room of one’s own just might, eventually, feel so empty.