Sarah Moss’s great gift is as a first-rate depicter of human emotions. Her characters live and breathe in the way that readers need characters to do: as compassionate, sympathetic and recognisable individuals we can connect with utterly, as people struggling to cope with the realities of life.

And these realities don’t get any grimmer, perhaps, than facing the imminent death of your child. Adam is a stay-at-home father, married to GP Emma, and the father of two girls, fifteen-year-old Miriam, and eight-year-old Rosie. His own mother died when he was very young – significantly for his daughters, she appears to have had some kind of anaphylactic seizure whilst out swimming. Twice in her childhood, Miriam has experienced something similar, where her breathing cut out completely.

It’s on the third such occasion that the business of facing one’s child’s mortality occurs. For Miriam collapses on the school grounds and is found slowly dying by a teacher. She is rushed to hospital, where they try to find out what’s causing these near-fatal episodes. It’s Adam who must deal with home life in the wake of this; Adam who must stay by Miriam’s side and still take Rosie to school; Adam who must hold the family together as it threatens to unravel.

Adam is a part-time academic, an “unemployed PhD” graduate in Coventry who is researching the city’s wartime experiences, especially the raids in one night which resulted in over 4000 deaths, and the fire which engulfed the city’s famous cathedral. But it’s the eyewitness accounts he’s drawn to, the domestic details of lives obliterated: “Who can believe that his wife will die, while cooking dinner in her own kitchen, that his children, tonight, won’t survive bathtime? Perhaps more importantly, how can we live once we have understood that any or all of us may be killed while tying our shoelaces or going up the stairs?”

Moss poses these enormous questions about life and death within the small, within the particular, within the everyday, and her method succeeds tremendously well. We share Adam’s reluctance to hear the doctor’s final diagnosis on Miriam’s condition; we understand that he begins to worry about the state of his marriage but then cuts that off as if there’s only so much he can deal with at one time. Throughout it all, he remains remarkably patient but he’s also made to be horribly passive, able only to pack lunches and load the washing machine whilst his daughter’s life hangs in the balance. Moss’s capturing of the mix of boredom and horror and sheer desperation, that those visiting a loved one daily in hospital feel, is both acute and wise.

The trick, of course, is to keep such a potentially depressing story compelling enough to the end. Moss gives Adam sufficient back story to counter the hospital drama: his father’s story as a European Jewish emigrant to the US, who grew up to reject Vietnam and the American Dream in favour of dropping out, joining communes where he eventually met Adam’s mother. His grand-daughter, Miriam, is feistily against all forms of authority, too.

And so, paralleling the story of illness and possible death is another: an alternative to the bourgeois lifestyle choices of marriage, mortgage, and nine-to-five job. Adam has embraced the latter, of course, with a twist: he is the one staying at home to raise the children while his wife goes out to work. Moss doesn’t pass any kind of judgement on whether this lifestyle is preferable to that which his father chose, or which seems most likely to attract Miriam, should she survive to adulthood. Rather, she prefers gently to emphasise that, when all is said and done, the family unit is what counts, no matter how it is constructed or maintained.

This is grown-up writing for grown-up readers, the kind of story that makes you think about your own life choices and close relationships. Few novels do that with such depth and clarity as Moss’s has done so here.