At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it anymore – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.
But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself.
What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .
Having adored Summerwater and been intrigued by Ghost Wall, I was interested to learn that Sarah Moss was turning her piercing authorial gaze upon the pandemic. Although it is somewhat inevitable that ‘pandemic fiction’ will be come a thing, Moss’s previous novels demonstrate both a perceptiveness of human nature, and a pervasive sense of menace that suit the subject matter. If anyone can convey the strangeness of lockdown, it is Moss.
And sure enough, The Fell is a wryly observed study of blame-shifting and governmental edicts and, at the same time, a deeply humane examination of isolation, guilt, and gratitude. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Kate, a furloughed café worker whose covert mid-quarantine stroll results in a mountain rescue operation; Kate’s son Matt, whose schooling and social life have both been forced online; Alice, Kate’s retired next door neighbour, trapped indoors thanks to shielding; and Rob, the mountain rescue worker pulled from a long-awaited weekend with his daughter to go and find Kate.
As the narrative progresses, we find out attitudes towards these characters, and our attribution of the ‘blame’ – a dynamic that, Moss argues, was as much a part of the UK’s first lockdown as isolation – shifting. As in Summerwater and Ghost Wall, Moss is exceptionally good at nailing the impetus behind each character, and using this to examine wider societal concerns. Alice berates herself for feeling lonely and frightened because she’s still breathing: still alive when so many others aren’t. Matt is uncertain about calling the emergency services when Kate doesn’t return because he knows how stretched they are in the pandemic. Rob’s teenage daughter, Ellie, can’t understand why her Dad forgoes time with her to rescue strangers who have put themselves in danger. Guilt, fear, doubt, and conflict – all are examined and, through examination, all of them turn a sharp and piercing eye upon governmental decisions that created the situation these characters find themselves in.
Questioning – both of the characters and of the reader – is a key component of The Fell. Kate breaks quarantine and heads out for a walk because she can no longer breath within the four walls of her home. Her confinement has become stifling – as have the worries about how she will keep a roof over her son’s head and food in the cupboard without her full income. As she wanders up the lane towards the titular fell, she is convinced her walk is ‘essential’ to stop her from going mad. This question of what is ‘essential’ – for stopping the pandemic, for preserving humanity in the midst of a crisis, for keeping the self sane – is asked constantly. Yes, Kate is breaking the rules and yes, Alice has seen her do so, but Alice isn’t about to shop her to the police for it – despite what her judgemental daughter would say – because Kate and Matt are also the only people checking in on Alice, and making sure their shielding neighbour has food and other necessities. And besides, Alice feels guilty for asking them to pick up ‘non-essential’ items such as Hula Hoops from the shop for her.
As in Summerwater, these small moments of everyday crisis stand within a wider pervasive sense of menace. Moss is brilliant at writing novels that, whilst seemingly ‘quiet’, carry with them a constant whisper: something is coming. The tension that builds as a result brilliantly conveys the feelings of that first lockdown, with the beautifully painted but ominous landscape of the Peak District providing the perfect backdrop to the suspenseful action.
The Fell both is and isn’t a ‘lockdown book’. As a piece of pandemic fiction, it brilliantly captures the tumult of the first UK lockdown, from the rightwing impetus behind the government’s rhetoric, to the tensions that arose within individual communities and households as a result. Nor is it an ‘anti-lockdown’ book, per se. Although it presents a human story behind Kate’s illegal action, the inclusion of Rob and Alice’s perspectives allow us to see the people who both risk their lives and those who are put at risk by such actions.
What The Fell does so brilliantly is spark a conversation – filling in the gaps of our individual lockdown experiences by encouraging us to consider and question the experiences and attitudes of others, as well as the motivations behind wider governmental and societal decisions and edicts. What it is, above all else, is a piercing and insightful examination of human nature and human experience that is fully deserving of all the accolades I am sure will come its way upon publication.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to Camilla Elworthy at Macmillan for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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