On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.
A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others.
Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.
Whilst I had my reservations about Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, it was a haunting novella and it’s lush prose lingered in my memory long enough to make me want to pick up her latest novella, Summerwater on release. Considered a spiritual successor to Ghost Wall, Summerwater shares both its dark lyricism and oppressive tone with its predecessor but, for me, conveys the airlessness and suffocation of its characters and location much more successfully.
Set over the course of a single day, Summerwater is set in an isolated holiday park in The Trossachs. With the rain lashing down and no sign of sun on the horizon, the inhabitants of the cabins are forced into contemplation, both of each other and of themselves.
In a series of finely crafted pen portraits, we enter each cabin in turn and peer into the heads of twelve very different narrators. From the unhappily married mother of two who runs without realising what she’s fleeing from, to the retired doctor refusing to recognise his wife’s increasing frailty, Sarah Moss has captured a cacophony of voices and situations, each layered upon each other to create a picture of a community thrown together in isolation.
Thrown into the middle of this ‘community’ is a household without a voice – an Eastern European woman and her child whose cabin transforms at night into a place of loud music and raucous voices. The voicelessness of this mother and daughter pairing – and the reflections of the other characters upon them – provide a subtle commentary upon our divided times, and on our capacity for both building and destroying the communities around us.
Moss’ writing is beautifully lyrical whether revelling in glorious descriptions of the Scottish landscape, or in exploring the interior landscapes of the human mind. This makes the rare moments of intense anger and cruelty felt by many of the characters even starker. There was one particular moment, during a seemingly harmless children’s game, that hit me like a punch in the gut and provided an unpleasant reminder of both how much children can absorb from the adults around them. These seemingly random explosions of feeling within each narrative made the devastating ending all the more poignant for me. It’s as if the all the tension in the book finally finds its release.
This makes Summerwater sound like an unremittingly bleak book but it really isn’t. The novella might be infused with the grey drizzle of one Scottish summer but it is also a testament to the human condition in all its forms. The characters are, above all else, human. Whether eating, drinking, walking, kayaking, washing the dishes, or having sex, they are almost mundane in their ordinariness. Any of these characters could be us and I’d be surprised if readers didn’t find themselves resonating with aspects of nearly all of them, whether it’s the tired mother who squanders her precious hour off by fretting about how to spend it, or the teenager who only realises the security offered by home once he’s floating in the middle of the lake with a fierce wind threatening to capsize him.
There are also regular flashes of a wry humour and some laugh out loud moments. Having been a teenage girl myself, I laughed at the hormonal rage of a daughter being made to do the washing up, distraught at being torn from her friends back home. And it was impossible not to chuckle at the interior monologue of a bride-to-be, thoughts spiralling around colonialism, the environmental crisis, and the best colour for the flagstones in her new house, whilst her partner attempts to pleasure her. From the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a few sentences, the writing here is so thoroughly imagined and of the moment that it’s impossible not to be drawn along with it.
Summerwater is a brief fable but no less accomplished for its brevity. In the space of just a few pages, Moss has conjured a tale brimming with life that offers a delicate and dark reflection on our times.
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