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Book Review: Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss


Imagine a house decorated by elaborate tapestries and aesthetic paintings; a house where every leaf in nature and every part of the human body are celebrated and captured in art. Created by their artistic father, the childhood world of sisters Ally and May Moberly is in itself an education in beauty. As a contrast, the bodies of the girls are disfigured by burn marks and bruises that multiply with each attempt to conceal them behind expensive fabric. In her latest novel Bodies of Light, Sarah Moss presents a picture of the Victorian era where everything hurts.

In Bodies of Light, Moss gives the reader a realistic depiction of a time when art became the enemy of conservative morality. With a puritanical mother and a decadent father, the Moberly household illustrates the aesthetic conflict that characterised the later part of the Victorian era. Using the form of the novel itself to emphasise the central place of art in 19th century society, Moss begins each chapter with an analysis of a painting by Mr Moberly. Symbolically, its theme correspond to the events of the novel.

Combining the freedom of decadence with the extreme work ethic of the puritans, Ally aims to achieve the impossible as she wishes to join the first generation of female doctors. The passages depicting her studies and training convey nothing but pain. Interpreting success as hubris and failure as laziness, Ally constantly punishes her body with a harshness inherited by her mother. Slowly, the child abuse they both suffered unravels a pattern of self-loathing so strong that it creates the need to be astonishing. In a time when women served their husbands before themselves and their employers, this was not a goal easily reached. Violently fighting the needs, and very existence of their bodies, Ally and her mother torment themselves until dreams begin to hurt for us all.

In denial of her mother’s increasing insanity, May dives into the world of decadent art. Breaking every rule of puritanism, she poses as a model for her father’s artistic friends only to discover that celebration of her body from a distance is not what they all had in mind. As male desire enters the studio, Moss reveals the full extent of her talent by subtly changing the mind of the reader. As a contrast to the beliefs of his wife, Mr Moberly’s artistic circle contained a promise of a peaceful existence, but with May naked on the divan we cannot but wonder if she instead should have followed the path of her self-harming mother and sister. Born out of two extremes, the lives of Ally and May are a depiction of the need to escape from a present in conflict with its own roots.

In an attack of ruthless realism, Bodies of Light tackle our perception of art, puritanism and feminism. Most of all, with language as raw as the characters are naked, Moss avoids the Downton Abbey version of Victorianism. For that, she deserves high praise.

Written by Hillevi Sellén



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