At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.
I first read Night Waking, Moss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’
When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.
On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Like Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.
This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.
But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.
Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’
In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.
A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.