Before I met Sarah Moss, in a tiny, cheerful café in the centre of Coventry, I visited the city’s cathedral. I wanted to see it because Adam, the narrator of Moss’s 2016 novel The Tidal Zone, is working on an audio guide to the building. The book’s main narrative is interspersed with chapters describing the bombing of Coventry during World War II, and the architect Basil Spence’s plans to build a modern cathedral from the ruins of its 700-year-old incarnation. Adam is also engaged in an act of reconstructive imagination. His teenage daughter collapsed at school, her heart stopped. She survived, but nobody knows why the collapse happened, or whether it will happen again. How does he move forward, honestly confronting what has happened and what may yet happen, but not allowing his family’s lives to be dictated by this uncertainty?
How we negotiate the past and imagine the future – personal, social, national – is an overriding concern of Moss’s six novels. A sleep-deprived academic struggles to write a book on the history of childhood while raising her own two young children (Night Waking). A Victorian woman grapples with the legacy of her mother’s psychological and physical abuse as she trains to be one of the country’s first female doctors (Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children). In The Tidal Zone, Adam is a part-time academic married to a GP, and his future must take into account not only his new awareness of his daughter’s vulnerability, but also the years of austerity that have reshaped higher education and the NHS.
Born in 1975, Moss grew up in Manchester and earned a PhD at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral research examined the influence of polar exploration on the Romantic imagination; her first novel, Cold Earth (2009), followed a group of students on an archaeological dig in Greenland. Recognition for Moss’s work has built steadily, with Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively, testament as much to her deep engagement with science and medicine as to the regularity with which she publishes. Her most recent book, Ghost Wall, won wide acclaim as a tense and insightful Brexit novel, albeit one set twenty-five years before the 2016 referendum. The novel’s teenage narrator, Silvie, along with her parents and a group of university archaeologists, is spending part of the summer attempting to live as the Ancient Britons did. Silvie’s father, a bus driver, is obsessed with Pre-Roman Britain, and over the course of the novel’s not-quite-150 pages we see that this obsession is rooted in the fantasy of a time and place free from foreigners, where women are controlled by men.
Moss is now a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. Her teaching, like her fiction and Names from the Sea (2012), a memoir recounting the year Moss spent with her family in Iceland, is bound up with questions of place. Place, not landscape, she corrected me at one point: expanding what counts as interesting territory, she pointed out, is as politically important as expanding our understanding of the past, and that means carparks as well as mountains, cathedrals and shops as well as oceans and meadows. We met in early June 2019, the week after European elections in which the Brexit Party won almost a third of the vote. Pragmatically and determinedly ungloomy despite these results, Moss was committed to rejecting all forms of nostalgia and to believing in a better future.