Summerwater re-examines some of the diverse themes of Moss’s other novels in just over 200 pagesby Catherine Taylor / July 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
In a time of unrest and pandemic novelists are, if a slew of recent articles are to be believed, either gleefully priming their keyboards, cursing at finding themselves too deep into their current manuscript to change direction—or simply despairing. Who will write the definitive work for these “unprecedented times”? One that looks to the past while reconfiguring the future? The consensus is that a hot take from Ian McEwan will hit the shops in 2021. Saturday (2005), in which McEwan placed one comfortably-off London family at the heart of the protest against the Iraq war in spring 2003, was lauded as a definitive state-of-the-nation novel. Like it or loathe it, the novel still resonates 15 years later.
From 2016 until the virus struck, the political sphere was preoccupied with the at times agonising self-severing of the UK from the EU. Its effects have filtered their way into fiction, alongside the climate emergency threatening our planet. Sarah Moss has touched on both topics in her novels. She has come to represent a subtly different type of English writing from the direct engagement of McEwan—one which is taking more diverse and interesting forms than ever before. Moss’s sixth novel Summerwater concerns itself with contemporary Britain in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. But like its immediate predecessor Ghost Wall (2018), its roots lie deep in remote time.
Set in a dilapidated Scottish cabin park near Loch Lomond over the course of one midsummer day and evening of relentless rain, Summerwater alights in turn on each of the very different people holidaying there. They are all given a distinctive voice—except a convivial young woman from Ukraine who is alone with her small daughter. The mother and daughter, viewed either benignly or with hostility by the other characters, will at the novel’s end become the focus for an act of literal conflagration.
Interspersed with these accounts are brief chapters comprising lyrical and often ominous reports of the wildlife surrounding the human-made structures: the natural world is quietly suffering due to excessive changes in weather. “Under the hedges, in the hollows of small trees, birds droop and wilt, grounded, waiting. Small creatures in their burrows nose the air and…