Durham Book Festival 2020: Sarah Moss: ‘Summerwater’

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Set over the course of just one exceptionally rainy day in a holiday cabin park in the Scottish Highlands, Sarah Moss’s Summerwater is a sharp, lyrical piece of writing that is at once anxiety-inducing and a pleasure to read. Durham Book Festival’s conversation with Moss provides readers with even closer insight into her thinking behind the novel and has certainly deepened my appreciation for her as one of the best contemporary novelists writing today. 

Using a Woolfian stream-of-consciousness voice, Moss tells the story through a number of  vignettes with a structure that she describes as a “narrative relay race” as we move through the  perspectives of each cabin’s inhabitants – trapped indoors, each in their own little world but ever-conscious of prying eyes, and all connected by the rain, the trees, the loch. Ranging from the old to the young, it is at once poetic and painful to reach inside the minds of these characters as Moss reveals their darkest wishes and secret thoughts. One of her most significant strengths as a writer lies in her ability to depict human nature so vividly and intuitively, especially pertaining to the anxieties of modern life which each character grapples with. From aging to sex to parenthood to feminism, Summerwater speaks to so many contemporary issues in a way that is perceptive, unapologetic and above all so (often  hilariously) relatable.  

Summerwater speaks to so many contemporary issues in a way that is perceptive, unapologetic and above all so (often  hilariously) relatable.  

Broader themes aside, however, the novel’s writing is also uniquely characterised by an attention to the quotidian, the tiny details that somehow bring the story further to life. When asked about the significance of this, Moss reflects: “The more we pretend the only moments in  life worth writing about are moments of high drama … the less attention we are paying to the substance of daily life for almost everybody, and that’s actually where we enact what we feel.”

There are various things that unite each of the characters in Summerwater, even though they never really talk but prefer to observe and exact judgment on one another from behind their windowpanes. This is a cast of people who are in all some way lying to themselves as they try  to maintain appearances even to those they love most, who seem to be at a crossroads in their lives and show great uncertainty over their own and the planet’s future. The persistent mentioning of the lack of Wi-Fi seems indicative of an increasingly screen-reliant world at the expense of human connection (scary, I know), while Moss exacts a subtle yet impactful critique of the state of interpersonal relations and human ignorance in the post-Brexit era which forms a fundamental context for the events of the novel. Interestingly, in her Book Festival interview, Moss said she “did not set out to write a state-of-the-nation novel”, but it became almost unavoidable given Brexit was “in everybody’s mind” as she was writing.  

Moss said she “did not set out to write a state-of-the-nation novel”, but it became almost unavoidable given Brexit was “in everybody’s mind” as she was writing.

Something particularly striking about Summerwater is the way these human vignettes are interspersed with brief but poetic, ethereal scenes of the natural world – and, unfortunately, human encroachment on it. These moments are more than simply beautiful nature writing (although they are that, too) – they are reminders of the damage we are inflicting on our own world, damage that the animals in the book are observing silently, hopelessly. Moss reflected in the interview: ‘I wanted the landscape to be slightly estranged…to be very slightly out of kilter. I was thinking about how we’re living with climate change…how for people living in north-west Europe…there’s only a very slight sense of something that’s beginning to go wrong.” She added that including ideas about climate change in her writing is “not a form of activism at all…because the scale of the change required is larger than individual readers.”

With an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere of suspicion and foreboding built upon by every  ‘chapter’, the events of the novel culminate in an ending that still manages to shock, despite all the signs we are given that tragedy is lurking somewhere in the shadows of the pages. And if you look close enough, Moss is teaching us a valuable lesson about our capacity for compassion or cruelty that is particularly poignant in these current times of crisis. 

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