Sarah Moss's Summerwater subverts expectations

Summerwater re-examines some of the diverse themes of Moss’s other novels in just over 200 pages

July 16, 2020
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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 stay hungry. There will be deaths by morning.”

*** Moss was born in Glasgow in 1975, but moved to Manchester as a young child. Her twin fictions Bodies of Light (2014) and Signs for Lost Children (2015) reimagined that English city through a family of artists and social reformers in the mid 19th century. Where Bodies of Light focused on the sacrifice of childhood and family life to art and exposing civic injustice, Signs for Lost Children is a more abstract work of alienation and identity, in which Ally and Tom, a newly married couple, are separated for six months when Tom, an engineer, goes off to build lighthouses in Japan, leaving his doctor wife Ally alone in stifling England. Both books were shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, awarded annually to the best book centred on medicine or health.

Moss’s next book, The Tidal Zone (2016), also nominated for the Wellcome, examined another city though its complex layers of history—this time Coventry, where she taught creative writing at the University of Warwick. In The Tidal Zone, in Moss’s words “a book about war,” a family deals with the sudden life-threatening illness of a teenage girl, Miriam, in the modern-day Midlands. The beleaguered NHS, for which Miriam’s mother works, plays a central role, and there is a parallel story following the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This is a specialist interest of Miriam’s father Adam, a part-time academic who takes on most of the domestic responsibilities and anxieties usually reserved (at least in novels) for women. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Penelope Lively called it a “novel for our times,” and it is notable that Lively, so adept at balancing family history and its consequences in her own fiction, should in turn champion Moss. Hilary Mantel has also given advance praise for Summerwater.

Families and the tensions between the individuals within them lie at the heart of Moss’s writing. There is also a powerful connection to often-uncongenial landscapes, early human settlements and the ghosts—imagined or real—contained there. This plays into Moss’s wider theme of national identity, which she has called “an invented tradition that depends on myths of origin.”

The explosive combination of historical and personal can lead to a kind of internecine warfare, most clearly expressed in Moss’s last novel, Ghost Wall. An archaeological camp excavating Iron Age culture in Northumberland—in the summer before the fall of the Berlin Wall—uncovers not only ancient rituals but also present-day domestic abuse. Prehistoric and contemporary existence meld to create a chilling thriller, reminiscent of Moss’s debut Cold Earth (2009), in which a team of archaeologists on Greenland bring to light not only a bygone Norse community but also their own terrifying sociopathy—even as a plague cuts them off from the outside world.

If Cold Earth was an apocalyptic start to Moss’s career as a fiction writer, her second novel, Night Waking, softened the darker elements with a wry humour. Anna, a historian with two fractious children and an emotionally absent ornithologist husband, spends a summer on a remote Outer Hebridean island. The exhaustion of a run of nights with broken sleep are spliced with the discovery of small bones buried in the garden and the letters of a young nurse who came to the island in the late 19th century to investigate the high rate of infant mortality. The fear of isolation—whether sought or dreaded—dominates the book, and Moss (who in 2012 also published Names for the Sea, a memoir of her own young family’s year in Iceland) almost comes full circle in her return to the far north with Summerwater.

*** Moss’s work has an uncanny prescience. While Summerwater was written well before the coronavirus crisis, reading it during weeks of lockdown there is something all too familiar in the uneasy frustrations of her multigenerational cast of 12, incarcerated in damp cabins, enduring lashing rain, bored and on a knife edge.

Claire, a compulsive worrier, wastes a precious hour to herself without the children fretting over the hygiene of her family’s rental. “She’ll be more relaxed once she knows it’s all clean, or at least until she knows the dirt is theirs.” Justine, an avid runner priding herself on the energy she has retained up to her mid-forties and feeling superior to those who are less vigilant about their bodies, is nevertheless ignoring a recent health warning that may sharply curtail her active lifestyle.

Justine’s daily 10km runs are observed by David, a retired doctor whose artist wife, Mary, is showing symptoms of early dementia. Mary and David are veterans of the holiday park to which they had brought their children for long-ago summer holidays. They lament the absence of unborn grandchildren, while David bemoans the referendum result: “How could the English be so stupid, he thinks again, pointlessly.” The sullen weather reflects his resentment: “You’d think the sun will never shine again, that it’s probably not even up there any more, is drifting away from us in disgust towards another set of planets.”

Moss cleverly subverts expectations with the dual chapters of Milly and her fiancé Josh. Milly’s far from politically correct mental distractions during an earnest lovemaking session are a welcome counteraction to the “ostentatious” rain; the fretful adoration Josh expresses, and their differing expectations of married life, make their future together look doubtful until the novel’s denouement.

Sulky teenagers are represented by Alex and his sister Becky—the former’s paranoia and turbulent hormones temporarily relieved by kayaking alone in the fathomless waters of the loch, underneath a dour “Scottish sky… better at obscenity than any human voice.” That the session nearly ends in disaster is just one of Moss’s warning flags, along with Becky’s secret visits to a strange older man who sleeps in a tent at the edge of the cabin park. Lurking in the loch’s depths is a forgotten history, a past as precarious as the current time: “the small boats of boys in every century who never came home, and the water holds the hand-stitches of their clothes and the cow-ghosts of their shoes and the amulets that did not help when they were needed.”

From these varied points of view, Summerwater re-examines some of the diverse themes of Moss’s other novels in just over 200 pages. While fluent and absorbing, the effect of the multiple perspectives can sometimes be slightly diluting. Not always, though. The toxic masculinity so menacingly on display in Ghost Wall here briefly re-enacts itself in the figure of Justine’s husband Steve. His unexpressed rage towards the Ukrainian woman in the nearby cabin, who is hosting a party with a steady stream of visitors, accelerates throughout the book. “He’s not being racist,” he tells himself, alternately silently cursing the woman for being Romanian, Bulgarian, or Polish by ignorant turns.

Cleverly, Moss reveals how such attitudes filter down into “innocent” childhood games turned cruel; the taunts of “where do you come from” uttered not by an adult but by a disturbed, angry child to another who is different and “foreign.” The younger children are the key to the book: sensitive Jack, who narrates the final dramatic scene; Izzie, whose nighttime imaginary terrors are about to be realised; and Lola, who carries the heavy disappointments of someone twice her age, and is as cunning as a feral animal in human form. In Moss’s assured yet brutal landscape, it is the wild, not the meek, who shall inherit the earth.