Lear stands on the heath railing, drenched by a deluge. In Bleak House the solemn “drip, drip, drip” of the Lincolnshire rain keeps time with the regularity of a metronome. Bathsheba’s ill-fated marriage to the caddish Sergeant Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd is met with a violent cloudburst of “liquid spines.” A mizzling, persistent damp leaches through the mud-splashed pages of Wolf Hall. It’s only fitting that the literature of the British Isles—what Hilary Mantel has Cromwell describe as that “miserable rainy island at the edge of the world”—is awash with cascading rivulets of rain, and Summerwater, Sarah Moss’s seventh novel, is no exception.
It is set on the banks of a large loch in the Trossachs National Park, just north of Glasgow, and follows the events of a single day, during which the rain pours down unremittingly—“the sounds of the water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body”—spoiling a group of English and Scottish holidaymakers’ fun. “You don’t live your whole life in Scotland to be scared of the rain,” points out David, a retired general practitioner from a small town near Glasgow, and the second of the twelve characters through whose eyes we see the day unfold—episodically but chronologically, from early morning to nighttime. Yet even he admits there’s something “odd” about the sheer relentlessness of this particular downpour. It’s “too much, the rain drilling the ground and churning up mud.”
Tensions and tempers are churned up as well. Inside the pokey, damp cabins in which the holidaymakers are staying, teenagers bemoan the absence of Wi-Fi or a phone signal, while parents curse themselves as they realize “all they’ve achieved by spending so much money to be away from home for two weeks is to deprive themselves of the usual resources for passing the time.” Sadly, there’s no sense of camaraderie. This isn’t a group vacation, just seven different families thrown together, trying to relax and enjoy themselves, though mostly failing miserably. Moss—who teaches English and creative writing at University College Dublin—finished writing Summerwater before the pandemic, but it is a book about lockdown, summoning many experiences now familiar to us—from the curtain twitching of neighbor judging neighbor to the magnification of systemic inequalities.
In its nuanced, immersive portraits of these families, Summerwater is more than just a quarantine novel. Narrated in the close third person, each of the book’s twelve main chapters takes us inside a different character’s mind, memories, observations, and daydreams jostling together in passages of free indirect speech, attentive to how national and global issues play out in the minutiae of the characters’ daily lives. The cumulative effect is an astute and polyphonic portrait of contemporary Britain, one in which a teenager’s worries about police brutality and climate change, an angry white man’s thoughts on immigration, or a young woman’s concerns about gender equality and the troubling legacies of colonialism are as prominent as the quandary of what to cook for dinner or the lines of a poem learned half a century ago (now resurfacing in an old woman’s disintegrating mind).
From one chapter to the next, Moss deftly switches tenor and psychology. The exaggerations and point-scoring of a small child—“Izzie can’t sleep. Daddy came and said good night to her hours and hours ago and then she heard them putting Pat to bed, which isn’t fair because he’s four and a half years younger than her”—sound just as convincing as the pessimism of a pensioner: “Getting married is like voting in that whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mildly unsatisfactory four years down the line.”
Actual dialogue is sparse, and when it does appear, Moss doesn’t use quotation marks, which means that what we’re reading doesn’t quite register as “voices” in the strictest sense of the word. It’s more a chorus of interiority, locating us inside each character’s mind. That Moss gives us these streams of consciousness while keeping the pacing of the plot under such firm control intensifies the novel’s already palpable claustrophobia.
Everyone is bored, cold, and fed up, their gripes amplified by the constricting conditions. As Justine, a forty-something mother of two, quietly steals out of her cabin at first light, careful not to wake her sleeping family, she finds herself wondering why her husband can’t pay her the same consideration when he gets up to use the bathroom in the small hours:
It puts you off, lying there listening to aggressive peeing from someone who could perfectly well just bloody sit down but won’t because in his head the masculinity police are watching even in the middle of the night, hiding, peering in through the windows or crouching in the laundry basket.
The exhausted Claire, meanwhile, who has a baby and a five-year-old to look after, doesn’t really want to divorce her husband, “or at least not for more than the odd evening every few weeks,” but she does envy couples with shared custody arrangements. “Wouldn’t she be an amazing mother, wouldn’t she be patient and creative and selfless, if she had to keep it up for no more than five days in a row?” she thinks. “If she had every other weekend to herself, to do whatever she wanted from dawn to dusk, to sleep late and go swimming and get the house properly clean?”
Examining domestic discontent and associated gendered presumptions has long been Moss’s forte, and she’s especially attuned to the unfair demands made on women. Anna, the history professor at the center of Moss’s second novel, Night Waking (2011), who is struggling to balance childcare and her career, is refreshingly honest about the frustration and tedium involved in a life that revolves around looking after small children. The photo of her two young boys that she uses as her laptop’s wallpaper is there not for sentimental reasons “but to remind me that my time is limited and I mustn’t mess around.”
Would she still have had children if she knew then what she knows now, Anna wonders—that she loves them (not that this actually means anything, since “everyone loves their children, child abusers love their children”) but hates motherhood? No, she reasons, probably not. In Ghost Wall (2018), which is set in and around an Iron Age reenactment camp on the Northumberland moors, teenage Silvie identifies our ancestors’ transition from nomadic wanderings to domesticity as the moment when apron strings yoked women to hearth and home: “Without a house…it is much harder to restrict a person’s movement. Harder for a man to restrain a woman.”
It’s no surprise then that it’s the mothers in Summerwater who bear the brunt of the stresses and strains of a vacation not going as planned. Each day, thinks Justine, is a “ticking clock of what she ought to be doing, wife and mother, on holiday, cleaning and breakfast and fun for the kids, making memories and making sure to photograph them in case they turn out not to be memorable after all.” Despite their obvious material comforts, Moss’s characters—both men and women—are trapped by societal convention and expectation, and rather than freeing them from these roles, their holiday offers just more of the daily grind.
As if all this isn’t already bad enough, the vacationers have an additional annoyance to deal with: the loud music the occupants of one cabin play late into the night. The culprit is a single mother, on holiday with her young daughter, Violetta. They live in Glasgow but are originally from Eastern Europe, and a different country of origin—Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania—is put forth as a guess whenever one of the English or Scottish characters mentions them. (In fact, they’re Ukrainian, discovers Becky, a teen who is the only one willing to attempt neighborliness.)
The mother, who remains nameless—we learn only her (and her daughter’s) surname, Shevchenko—has friends who arrive each night, employees at the nearby hotel, Claire assumes with blinkered prejudice:
It’s not that she minds people having the occasional party…but there’s no sound insulation in these cabins and why would anyone come all the way up here if not for the quiet, couldn’t they have gone to Newcastle or wherever it is that people go for clubbing and gigs these days if they want that kind of thing?
There are “eyes at every window,” everyone’s complaining about the “selfish fuckers,” tutting and shaking their heads. Unlike the bad weather and the simmering family tensions, here’s an irritation that can be confronted, and thus the book’s battle lines are drawn: “us” versus “them.”
With her recent novels, Moss has proved herself to be one of the most discerning chroniclers of contemporary British life. The Tidal Zone (2016) concerns a family who’s struggling to regain its equilibrium after their teenage daughter, Miriam, survives a cardiac arrest. Then came Ghost Wall, which, despite being set in the early 1990s, clearly attended to twenty-first-century nostalgic nationalism and toxic masculinity, as well as recent reckonings with violence against women. Now, with Summerwater, she has written her slyest, sleekest state-of-the-nation yet. Eager to channel their exasperation with a noisy neighbor, the cabin dwellers are Brexit Britain in microcosm: insular, defensive, and on the lookout for a scapegoat.
Keeping the novel on track, and stopping it from devolving into a murky soup of subjectivities, is the thriller-like sense of dread and foreboding that mounts with every chapter. Each is separated from the next by a brief description of the surrounding natural world, from the air above to the bedrock of the nearby peaks. These are welcome shifts in perspective that help to separate the different voices, but they also play an important part in amplifying the escalating sense of menace. “There will be deaths by morning,” we’re told, in a warning that follows a particularly fraught episode in the day’s proceedings.
Even the natural descriptions carry a frisson of danger:
Rain simmers in puddles. Trees drip. Grass lies low, some of it beginning to drown in pooling water, because even here, even where the aquifers are in constant use and the landscape carved by the rain for its own purposes, the earth cannot hold so much water in one day.
Against this ominous, waterlogged backdrop, Moss sets up one potential disaster after another: a mother with a heart murmur who disregards her doctor’s warnings never to run alone; a retiree who drives too fast along rain-slicked hairpin bends on hilly roads; unsupervised children playing by the edge of the deep, dark loch; the strange man who lurks in the woods; a teenager who takes his kayak out alone in the storm.
Each family’s security is shown to be as fragile as that of the next, the potential for calamity folded into the quotidian. But with each catastrophe narrowly averted, there’s the growing sense that whatever terrible thing happens, it will affect everyone. And sure enough, as night falls and the music starts up again, rending the air with “the violence of the bass,” the holidaymakers find themselves drawn together as witnesses to a tragedy when a fire breaks out in the Shevchenkos’ cabin.
Moss has always been adept at juggling multiple perspectives, most often in the form of parallel chronologies: the configuration of a secondary storyline, set in the past, anchoring what unfolds in the present. The central characters of both her debut, Cold Earth (2009)—in which six archaeologists on a dig on the west coast of Greenland fall prey to group hysteria—and Night Waking, which is set on a tiny Hebridean island, are haunted by the stories of those who died on the same sites years earlier.
Moss’s preoccupation with history has defined both what she writes about and how she writes about it. She uses the past to illuminate the lives of her characters in the present; to understand the way we live now, her books continually tell us, we must first understand how we’ve always lived. As the professor of ancient British history in charge of the camp warns the other reenactors in Ghost Wall, “one of the things you learn in my line of work is that there’s no steady increase in rationalism over the centuries, it’s a mistake to think that they had primitive minds and we don’t.”
Indeed, much of the eerie power of Ghost Wall lies in its articulation of the porous relationship between past and present. Silvie thinks:
Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone.
She becomes the victim of her father, a self-taught history enthusiast with a dangerous commitment to ensuring that their Iron Age experience is as authentic as possible. (At his and the professor’s command, the group stages a virgin sacrifice, with Silvie in the leading role. It all starts to feel a bit too real, but luckily she’s saved by the intervention of one of the students.) “To do it properly,” Silvie continues,
we would almost have to absent ourselves from ourselves, leaving our actions, our reenactions, to those no longer there…. Maybe they imagined us first, maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds.
It’s the even deeper past that Moss evokes in Summerwater, that of “geological time,” of “ancient” rocks “that are now Scotland” but once “lay south of the equator,” layers of sediment “imprinted by the bodies of primitive plants,” and a lakebed strewn with debris from millennia of life: “There are the bones of skin coracles and the shells of bark canoes and the hollowed-out trunks of trees that once gave shelter to bears.” It’s significant that these descriptions are all taken from the tableaux between the chapters. The various professor protagonists of Moss’s earlier novels would have been the ones to note how today’s transatlantic flight routes still follow the Viking sea roads, but these characters are too much inside their own heads to pay detailed attention to the world around them. Here we’re treated to a different life of the mind; Moss roams freely through their consciousnesses but meets little in the way of erudition.
In contrast to her earlier books, which are generally driven by interactions (however antagonistic) between characters, the focus in Summerwater is on the group’s inability to connect. All they have in common are certain prejudices and their failure to acknowledge them. “Even five or ten years ago, you’d never had anything like those Romanians these last two nights, the odd French or German plates on a car in summer but the folk renting knew how to behave,” David laments. “He’s not being racist,” thinks Justine’s husband, Steve, in an attempt to rationalize his own intolerance:
Even though they weren’t meant to be here any more, it’s no odds to him that they’re foreign, Romanian or what have you…. They can stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to but they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.
Until the dénouement, there’s surprisingly little actual contact among the vacationing families. It’s not like the old days of beach parties with bonfires, barbeques in the summer, and the Scottish New Year celebrations in winter that David recalls so fondly: “That was different, everyone got together, it wasn’t just one lot keeping everyone else up all night.”
“Where are you from?” the spiteful little bully Lola demands of Violetta Shevchenko, in one of the few exchanges between members of the different families in the park. “Glasgow,” Violetta replies, “aren’t you?”
It’s none of your business where I’m from, Lola says, I’m asking the questions here. So, where you really from, Violetta Shitchenko? Somewhere people scream and yell like baboons all night and keep everyone awake with their so-called music? Somewhere people don’t know how to behave?… You’re supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not get the message?
Poor Violetta might not have gotten the message, but her mother certainly has: she’s a taxpayer who’s “been here for twenty years,” she tells Becky when the girl tries to strike up a sociable conversation, clearly more prepared for hostility than friendliness.
In the poem from which Moss takes her title—“The Ballad of Semmerwater” by William Watson—a city is swallowed by a lake, punishment for the residents who refused a passing beggar food and refuge. In this allusion, the two central themes of the novel collide: the dangers of the failure of human hospitality and those of an increasingly inhospitable climate. Becky’s sixteen-year-old brother, Alex, wonders what life will be like by the time he’s in his sixties—“if there’s still a planet to live on, if the crazy governments have spared anything.” And Claire chides herself for procreating: “It was inexcusable, really, to have children, the way things are, the way they’re going to be.” But much of Summerwater is given over to its characters’ attempts to justify the reckless decisions they’ve made, their bad behavior or uncharitable thoughts.
When, in the last few pages of the book, the event we’ve been fearfully anticipating finally occurs, it does so with surprising swiftness and horror, and—in stark contrast to everything that precedes it—little in the way of commentary. The reader must judge whether the fire is a tragic accident or the result of a certain character’s malicious intention. What Moss leaves us with is a shocking stillness. No more music. No more meandering trains of thought. Even the rain has finally stopped.