No one writes like Sarah Moss. When you open a novel by Sarah Moss you are going to fall down a rabbit hole and not come up for air. Her writing is sharp, detailed and quite frankly amazing, so best clear your schedule if you are about to start one of her books.
So when I heard there was a new Sarah Moss, Summerwater , on the horizon I was desperate to read it. Thank you to Camilla Elworthy for the chance. Back in May I devoured it, loved it, sat down to write my review and failed…
Not because Summerwater isn’t a great book, it is. It’s a fabulous book with bells on! I started and stopped my review because I was convinced I couldn’t convey even half of it’s brilliance. So I wrote one line and stalled; chickened out basically.
But now it’s August and this book needs a review. I need to pay some kind of tribute to this clever and complete book, even if it falls short. And I need to pay tribute to an author I have mentioned numerous times on the blog but never reviewed. So I have embarked on my first reread of the year, put my big girl pants on and here goes…
Summerwater is the story of one day. Set in a small holiday park of log cabins, deep in the Scottish hills, on the shores of a Loch. It is midsummer and it is raining. Raining relentlessly, set in, a constant drumming backdrop to the unfolding events of the day. The rain is fraying tempers, stretching the edges of tolerance, already tested by the late night parties of the Eastern European woman saying in one of the lodges.
Each cabin holds a family, each family has their own story, their own reason for being there. Within each lodge we find a microcosm, the story of a family, but also the story of individuals. There are many lives depicted here; it feels like there are seeds of many novels waiting to be written, nestled in the pages, beneath this rainy Scottish sky. But nothing about these snapshots, these glimpses of each life feels superficial or shallow. Nothing feels incomplete. On the contrary it all feels rich, textured, multilayered and tantalising.
Take for example Justine, mother and wife, walking early and slipping out to run, to find her escape from family life whatever it might cost. Or Josh and Millie, engaged and looking forward, but each pulling in slightly different directions. Or David and Mary, retired and veterans of the holiday park. Both ageing, but at different rates, both aware of but ignoring a growing problem in their lives. And the small inappropriately dressed girl, often seen alone at the edge of Loch, daughter of those who party late into the night. All of life it seems is trapped in theses lodges, bored teenagers , struggling mothers, wayward children, babies and misfits.
It is Sarah Moss’ particular skill that crafts beautifully observed, honest and authentic characters. Characters that live lives filled with dark humour and uncomfortable truths. It seems that people’s inner most thoughts are her speciality, particularly the thoughts of women. Her writing is precise, intuitive and relevant, presenting a series of portraits expertly drawn. Everyone’s strengths, flaws and frustrations are laid bare, all building towards the novel’s climax. Each portrait provides a critical layer of tension, a layer of depth and investment. So many times I felt myself move deeper into the story, sure I was reaching a pivotal moment of crisis or intrigue, but then the writing veered away, pulling me in a different direction, on to a climax I didn’t see coming.
Quite simply there is so much in this book. So much to digest and discuss, so many places the story and events could go. Moss is the master at painting complex authentic pictures in a small window. These are snapshots that get to the heart of a character, their thought feelings and preoccupations, some problems momentary and easily resolved, others deeper brewing and more threatening, maybe not yet fully realised.
Authentic is the word I keep returning to time and again. Sarah Moss gets it! Her detail is all so real, tangible and so beautifully observed.At a stroke she encapsulates a sense of time and place. I found myself nodding along as she conveys the nothingness of holidays with small children in the rain. Or that feeling of setting out on a run when your body is screaming and then it all clicks. Or that feeling of quietly lamenting the life before small children, whilst simultaneously being unable to let go of the day to day realities of life and unwind. All of this matters, all of this is real.
And throughout there is an under current, maybe more than an under current linked to Brexit and it impact. Woven neatly into the narrative, without being intrusive is evidence of the changing of attitudes. Lola, a confident bully of a child, tells Violetta, to go home, rehearsing the xenophobia rhetoric she has learnt from her father. Justine laments the choices that will be denied to her children. And the in antisocial behaviour of women in the cabin, much is made of her nationality, as if this will explain away her behaviour, as if this defines her.
I am a huge fan of Sarah Moss. I don’t even try to deny it. I love the way she doesn’t waste a word, the way she uses language to weave a web and trap you, all the while getting to heart of what she has to say. Summerwater is up there with the best of this year’s publications and this review is my own small way of banging it’s drum. If you haven’t read Sarah Moss before, please do. And if you have, Summerwater is another perfect stop off along the way.