Bodies of Light
Granta Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code
SET in Victorian Manchester and London, Sarah Moss's engaging
novel Bodies of Light tells the story of Ally and her
painful struggle and determination to become one of the first
generation of women doctors.
The first half draws us - with delicious restraint and biting
humour - into the unhappy alliance of Ally's artist father, who
expects his daughters to model for him, and her Evangelical mother,
who works tirelessly to reform the poor and rescue fallen
With the second half, the focus shifts to Ally herself. Her
youthful calling to help women of all social classes by pursuing a
medical career only hardens into something stronger the more she is
embittered by the misogyny and bullying she experiences at medical
school. But, as the novel makes clear, how to respond to this
situation is far from simple. Ally and her female colleagues argue
and fall out over how much they are willing to accommodate and
adapt to a man's world.
Although set in the past, the novel feels surprisingly modern -
less interested, perhaps, in writing the largely unrecorded
experiences of the first women doctors back into history than in
making connections with the present. The lack of female surgeons is
still debated today.
The affinity between Christianity and socialist feminism
appeals. As with some contemporary feminist preoccupations, sacred
and secular, the new world of medicine opening up to women is
perceived as a middle-class debate: "It'll take more than
university degrees to make a new world for us, wouldn't you say?"
says one of the working women to Ally.
Bodies of Light is a beautiful, humane, and
grace-filled novel that - in so far as it preaches anything -
exhorts a social gospel of love, and whose sparing narration makes
us know the true cost of a vocation.
The Revd Anna Macham is Priest-in-Charge of St Philip's,
Camberwell, in south London.