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.