As we head towards the autumn months out of a very strange summer, there is no other book more perfect to read than Sarah Moss’ Summerwater. This novel was made to be read in one-sitting with the rain tapping on your window, a blanket over your lap, and a hot drink in hand. Place yourself in the shoes of her characters in this novel set over the course of one day.
On the longest day of summer, when the rain is pouring down on some holiday cabins by a Scottish loch, twelve holiday-goers are stuck indoors with nothing much to do – except, of course, watch each other.
A woman goes on a run to escape for an hour; a teenager kayaks on the choppy lake; an elderly couple reminisce about the neighbours that have left and the ones who have replaced them. But one cabin in particular catches everyone’s attention, where they wear the wrong clothes and have the wrong manners, playing music loud into the night. As the day continues, and we follow more characters, tension begins to rise as this makeshift community become united in their division, unaware of what the night will bring.
This novel completely floored me. I adored it. I loved the narration as Moss inhabits each character in a stream-of-consciousness prose. Each new chapter brings a new character, a new way of thinking, and shows us the world of each cabin, from young lovers, to long married couples, from moody teenagers, to the reminiscing elderly. The narration places us in the heads of each character, giving us an exclusive insight into their unfiltered thoughts and feelings. I found having access to lots of different characters engaging as it illuminates how everyone has their own problems and worries, not matter how small or trivial, from health problems to the mere lack of WiFi reception.
Moss also tells the troubles of the nature surrounding these cabins, inhabiting the heads of the animals that inhabit the landscape. It is nature writing like I have never seen before; the life of the plants and the furry creatures intertwine with the behaviour of humans. All living things by this loch are affected by the weather and this community of people and Moss really brings the landscape to life through this vivacious technique. You can hear, see, and feel the landscape on your skin.
"The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droops. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands. It's tiring, raising boughs to the sun, making energy of sunlight. Come night the trees' bodies have less work. The pressure in their cells falls a little, like ours. Like us, like any creature, they don't stop at night, some tree-mind keeps the respiration running, tends to the flow of sap. Some green thought reads the turning of the earth and the slow tilt towards winter." (Pg. 173)
One aspect that I was particularly interested in was setting the story over a one day period. The narrative reflects the confinement that her characters are experiencing, being stuck indoors due to the rain. The reader is also stuck with them, watching every movement, feeling every slow minute tick by. With the lack of a distraction, Moss is able to linger on the everyday behaviours of her characters that would otherwise go unnoticed: the way people eat, the way people go to the toilet, the way they move. It feels like she is capturing the human condition in its most pure form: during boredom. Moss' nature writing really does extend to her characters as her watchful eye lets no movement go unmissed. By also taking place over one day, the claustrophobia of time and place increase the tension in the narrative, forcing the reader to question 'when will something happen?', making the drama all the more interesting.
Alongside narrating the everyday tasks of her bored characters, Moss also touches on much larger problems, issues that are ingrained in the consciousness of each character, whether they admit it or not. She mentions Brexit, immigration, and US politics, all while keeping the everyday-ness of the story. The language of Brexit seeps through the pages, showing the divided times her characters are living in:
"So where are you really from, she asks quietly. Glasgow, says Violetta. Govanhill. You can see she's going to cry, any minute now. She's not even trying to hold it back. I'm getting a bit sick of this, says Lola, I asked you where you're really from. You're supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not gt the message?" (Pg. 75)
Even in the most remote of places, Moss proves that territorial animosity is very much alive and that human connection perhaps cannot transcend the tribes we place ourselves in.
Summerwater is the book I wished I had written, and one I will recommend time and time again, for a long time to come. 5/5 stars.
If you're interested in hearing more about the book, listen to the latest episode of mine and Beth's podcast, Up North Books, where we discuss the undercurrents of Brexit in both Summerwater and Exit Management by Naomi Booth.
Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the novel:
"Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the paces between the pine needles, settling between blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach." (Pg. 1)
"The land under our feet, far under our feet, beneath our buildings, roads, pipes, subway systems, mines, and even our fracking; under the valleys, the deepest lakes and the abysses of the ocean floor, is always shifting, forming, changing state. We write on the surface but the surface moves." (Pg. 25-6)
"He can get a job, now. A National Insurance number came a few weeks ago and he took it up to his room and looked at it, re-read the letter. How do they know about him, the National Insurance people, how do they know his name and where he lives and when he turns sixteen, have they been watching him all these years? They shouldn't do that." (Pg 92)
"now take that cloth and dry those dishes and put them away or there'll be trouble, do you understand? no, she thinks, actually I don't, I don't understand any of it, all this fuss about teabags and washing up, its not normal, normal parents would just be grateful i'm not taking drugs or sleeping around." (Pg. 139)
Thank you for reading and hopefully see you next time,