Summerwater ~ Sarah Moss

woman holding mug of coffee beside opened book

Summerwater is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I have read; it won’t be the last. Located in a Scottish campsite populated by cabins which have been handed down through family generations, Moss sets her novel over a period of twenty-four hours in mid-summer. Subdivided into alternating longer and very much shorter sections, the book recounts how that one day, rain sodden as only a British summer day can be, is spent by the people staying on the site and, in the shorter sections, the wildlife that inhabits the surrounding woodland. We follow the attempts by members of each generation to fill the wet, isolated hours when even to set foot over the threshold is to be soaked to the skin. There is the elderly couple having to face the fact that she is slowly descending into some form of dementia; the young couple with two small children trying to find ways to amuse them cooped up in what seems to be a little more than a wooden box; the lovers planning married life on an isolated island for which this must seem like some sort of trial run and the teenagers, desperate without their social networking, fighting for independence with every breath.

What has brought these people to a location that, on this particular day, might well be called a God forsaken place? Moss seems to suggest that it is ingrained habit. These families have spent their holidays sequestered away in these selfsame wooden cabins summer after summer. It is what they do; it has become who they are. And this notion of ourselves as creatures driven by ways of being that have been handed down and reinforced year in and year out seems to me to be at the heart of what Sarah Moss is concerned with.

Some of these habits are relatively new, inasmuch as they have only been part of family life over one, two or three generations. Some are still in the process of being laid down – in one instance quite literally. ‘Zanzibar’ introduces us to Josh and Milly, the young couple who are intending to marry and moved to the island of Barra.

They are trying to have simultaneous orgasms.

If we can learn how to do it, Josh says, we will be like a hundred times more likely not to get divorced. I read about it.

So they are practising; they are trying to build a habit.

Much of Summerwater is heart wrenching, but not ‘Zanzibar‘, which we experience through Millie’s eyes as she tries hard not to judge [Josh’s] facial expressions nor to think about bacon sandwiches to pass the time.  I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud. It’s a sign of Moss’s excellent pacing that she knows just went to offer the reader some light relief and also a sign of the control she has over her material that when we meet the couple again, this time through Josh’s eyes, we realise that what he is actually trying to do is save the relationship, recognising that he has the habit of living in a small island community but Millie does not.

Habits are built over a lifetime and while they can be very useful in as much as they save us time where every day occurrences are concerned, they can also bind us and leave us tied to repetitive ways of living that have ceased to serve us well. And, some habits, some ways of thinking, some ways of reacting, are built over far longer stretches than one single being’s existence. This is perhaps revealed most strongly in the shorter sections which deal with the natural world that also inhabits this campsite and its surrounds. For me, the point is made most tellingly in always wolves, a bare dozen lines in which a doe, protecting her fawn, steps nervously out of the trees.

In her mind there are always wolves, day and night, a pack of them slinking on the edge of scent and sound. They creep nearer when she sleeps, when she and the fawn bow  their heads to drink, when the trees cluster to make hiding places.

Here is a creature who can never have encountered a wolf, but the herd memory, the fear instilled in generation after generation of her kind, still controls her reactions and informs her way of life. And the same is true of the human inhabitants of the campsite. They bring with them their ingrained fear, passed down from father to son, of those whose habits and way of life are different from theirs, a fear which manifests itself in the shape of distrust, dislike, anger and violence.  And, if Summerwater has a fault, for me it is in the ending, which exploits this fear and gives it concrete shape. It seems too sudden, too definite, for a book which has thus far dealt in less direct means of communication. But this is to quibble. The quality of the writing and of the act of creation, where both atmosphere and characters are concerned, seems to me to be outstanding. This is certainly one of the best novels I have read so far this year.

With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.

21 thoughts on “Summerwater ~ Sarah Moss

  1. A Life in Books August 15, 2020 / 8:20 am

    Just skimmed your review for now, Ann, as I’m in the middle of writing my own but as Moss fan I was very pleased to read your first sentence


    • Café Society August 15, 2020 / 8:36 am

      I’ve already scheduled one of her earlier books, Bodies of Light, for one of the reading groups later this year, Susan.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. alibrarylady August 15, 2020 / 11:05 am

    This is an author that I don’t know and I love the sound of this, thank you.


    • Café Society August 15, 2020 / 11:27 am

      The quality of her writing is superb. I can’t wait to read something else by her.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeanne August 15, 2020 / 2:03 pm

    I’ll have to look for this book. I love what you say about habits. We have an old joke about why I cut the end off a ham before I cook it. I called my mother and asked why. She said she did it because her mother did it. When we called my grandmother to ask why, she said “because that’s the only way it would fit in my pot.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Café Society August 15, 2020 / 2:54 pm

      And gradually those family habits become part of the family DNA. The trouble is that they are not always so benign, Jeanne – as is the case here.


  4. Helen August 15, 2020 / 9:23 pm

    I read Bodies of Light last year and enjoyed it. I’m not sure if this particular book appeals to me, but I do still want to read more of her work.


  5. Julé Cunningham August 16, 2020 / 12:43 am

    I’m very much looking forward to reading this. I love Sarah Moss’s writing, her prose almost seems stripped down and yet she packs so much richness into her work. I’ll never figure out how she does it. Thank you for a lovely write-up on on the book.


    • Café Society August 16, 2020 / 8:43 am

      I hope you enjoy as much as I did, Julé. As you will have gathered, it’s the first of her novels that I’ve read but I’ve already put Bodies of Light onto one of my book groups’ reading list for the autumn and I shall try and get round to her other work as well. Writing of this quality deserves to be savoured.


  6. Laura August 16, 2020 / 10:46 am

    I’m glad this worked for you! I didn’t catch the theme of habit when I read it, but I think you’re absolutely right.


    • Café Society August 16, 2020 / 12:27 pm

      I know you didn’t enjoy this as much as her previous novel, Laura. I shall definitely get round to that as soon as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laura August 16, 2020 / 12:55 pm

        I enjoyed both this one and Ghost Wall a lot! My favourite is still The Tidal Zone, though 🙂


  7. Cathy746books August 16, 2020 / 3:43 pm

    I’m so keen to read this one, I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Moss so far!


    • Café Society August 16, 2020 / 3:59 pm

      I shall definitely be going back to read her earlier work, Claire. I feel I have been missing out.


  8. FictionFan August 16, 2020 / 6:08 pm

    I have this one but it’ll be a while before I get to it. I’m glad you liked it so much but I must admit that your review makes me feel it’s probably not one I’ll enjoy. I had mistakenly thought it was a kind of thriller or suspense novel, rather than lots of separate stories.


    • Café Society August 16, 2020 / 6:11 pm

      No, definitely not a thriller, FF. I think you would appreciate the quality of the writing but I wouldn’t have pinned it as your sort of novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Elle August 17, 2020 / 1:01 pm

    Wonderful review. I found Summerwater didn’t feel as claustrophobic for me as her earlier novel Ghost Wall (which really knocked my socks off),but then it’s a completely different book. You might particularly like her novel The Tidal Zone, about a young girl with a heart defect and her stay-at-home father’s attempts to both keep her safe and navigate the gender expectations of the other parents around him; I also love Signs For Lost Children, which is historical.


    • Café Society August 17, 2020 / 1:14 pm

      Thanks Elle, you’re the second person I really trust to recommend The Tidal Zone, so I shall definitely put it on to the list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Elle August 18, 2020 / 8:10 am

        Fabulous – I think with your interests it would particularly appeal.


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