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Woman on a medical mission

18 July 2014

Anna Macham enjoys a healing call pursued

Bodies of Light
Sarah Moss
Granta Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT641 )

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 women.

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.

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