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Summerwater, Sarah Moss

September 16, 2020

One of the effects of my continued “remote” working, which, if you ask me, is both a metaphor and a label for online, is that I’m more than usually affected by good book blog reviews. If someone I regularly read likes a book, on my list it goes, and sooner rather than later. So it is that I read about Summerwater by Sarah Moss at Café Society and decided to read it at the end of summer in Ohio, usually the driest part of our generally very wet year.

Summerwater is set in a Scottish “chalet park,” which seems to be a collection of vacation cabins. They are small and old, with some of the original owners come back after years of summers spent in and around the cabins. My association with this kind of place is a memory of a week spent somewhere in the wilds of southern Missouri in one of a group of cabins available to state university faculty. One morning my brother and I went out fairly early and discovered a snake under a log on part of the main path. When we showed it to my father, he was alarmed, moved us far out of the way, and called together a group of four or five other professors who stood around what turned out to be a hole with several snakes in it and talked about what to do. Eventually the snakes, rattlesnakes, were killed or forced to move on. Even at my age, which I guess was 6 or 7, I remember the occasion because it was when I realized that my father and the other fathers like him weren’t real outdoorsy types.

That’s very much the feeling of this short novel, Summerwater. The people in the cabins are out of their element. Their usual habits of thinking and ways of seeing are being challenged, although most of them are not aware of that.

The structure of the novel is built to gradually enlarge the reader’s perception, beginning with a single person, adding a short chapter about the geology of the land across which she runs, then showing us an older person who has come to the area for many summers, and after that a short chapter to make us think about an aerial view of the loch where the cabins group around one end. After the aerial view, the short chapters start showing us the animals who live around the cabin–their habits and ways of seeing–in between chapters about the people and the way they look at the place and the other people staying there.

Although this novel was published in 2020 it was written before the worldwide pandemic. Even so, when a character in Scotland–a nearby destination for her but a faraway place I’d like to visit—thinks wistfully of travel, it sounds like my own thoughts, this summer:
“There won’t be a plane this summer, or next. Who could afford to travel, now? If she’d known she thinks, if she’d known that she wasn’t going to achieve financial comfort or even security as the years went by, if she’d recognized the good times when she had them, she’d have travelled more when she was young.”
I’d certainly have traveled more when it was harder to afford it if I’d known that at the age when I finally have more money and time I would be trapped in my own country, held hostage to the dysfunction of a federal government determined to erect a wall that is keeping us in.

Even from her husband’s point of view, which comes first, I identify with the fears of Mary, the wife of a retired doctor who has trouble walking. He thinks “she’s nervous…about the wet wood, though it’s not slippery, and about the three steps down to the gravel.” He thinks if she just walked more she wouldn’t be losing her capacity to walk. He has no idea about the fear, about how wet wood can feel slippery to someone with an uneven gait even when it doesn’t feel slippery to you.

Although you probably will identify with some of the characters, the point is not so much to identify with them as to watch them, to see what they see and then to see how others see them. Like the 16-year-old boy who embodies a current meme when he thinks about why he is there with his younger sister and both parents in a small cabin—because his mother said “If you wanted to do something else you should have made a proper plan weeks ago” and he thinks “weeks ago, he was revising for his exams, and by ‘proper plan’ it turned out Mum meant ‘return to the 1990s when there was work for unqualified sixteen-year-olds.’”

We see a little girl wearing black patent leather shoes, and we follow what happens to her, or what we think must have happened from the sightings we’re given by different characters. Our interest in her fate is part of what builds up to the ending of the novel. The other part is our interest in who might be going to talk to the people in the cabin who have turned their music up so loud the people in the other cabins can’t sleep through it. As it turns out, the little girl irritates another child not just because she’s shy. The loud music irritates everyone not just because it’s rude. The last straw is that the strangers in the loud-music-playing-cabin look like they’re foreign or seem to have a foreign-sounding last name.

Although everyone dismisses the woman who is afraid of falling (including her husband, who thinks she is getting senile), she is the one who remembers the poem Semmerwater, which must be important for its similarity to the novel’s title. The minor key of the ballad and the warning of the poem, with its inhospitable king and queen, are building up to the ending of the novel.

Despite the build up to the ending, this is not an ominous story. It is quite the opposite, full of small, everyday details about what people are thinking and the ordinary things they are trying to do—eat, sleep, make love, get a phone connection. I especially like one of Josh’s thoughts about the woman who has agreed to marry him and live a simple life on an island:
“a new beginning, clean air, learning to bake their own bread and see the stars and hear the birds, but he’s not sure she’s really understood that mostly the people who’ve always lived there aren’t that interested in air pollution and sourdough and she’s always liked thinking about birds and stars more than actually looking at them.”
People who live in rural areas, like me, are used to hearing about the wonders of “the simple life” from urbanites and it’s always satisfying to see their preconceptions shattered by reality. Josh doesn’t want this to happen to the woman he loves, but readers might have a tiny bit of longing for it.

What do we long for? After a couple of nights being kept awake by someone else’s music, we all long for the music to stop. But when we get our wish, will it be what we really wanted? Is it just deserts we’re after? Is my own perspective large enough, even at the end of this novel, to allow me to be the one to make the wish that will give everyone what they deserve?

What I love about this novel, what you will love, is the chance to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes and see how easily those shoes could take you where they take the novel’s characters. Are you tired of rain, tired of someone else’s demands, feeling a little bit selfish, maybe even a touch xenophobic? Maybe not. But are you sure that you couldn’t be led that way, by sleeplessness, circumstances, and the actions of those you love? What happens may seem remote, but as the car’s side mirror in the movie Jurassic Park warns “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2020 3:32 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Jeanne. There is always that fear when you have really loved a book that the people who have read it because of what you’ve said won’t find the same pleasure. I have scheduled one of her other novels for a book group later in the year (this won’t be available in paperback in time and that is pretty much our only rule) and I have my fingers crossed that it will be as good as this and that the others in the group will also think it worth giving time to.

    • September 17, 2020 4:16 pm

      I’m glad I enjoyed it, too. Sometimes you and I have different tastes, but I think we agree more often than we disagree.
      Surely another by her will be worth giving time to, even if some of the others don’t “like” it.

  2. September 16, 2020 7:43 am

    Ooh, the structure of this sounds very intriguing, and the writing seems just full of needley insights. I have been meaning to try Sarah Moss!

    • September 17, 2020 4:14 pm

      “Needley” insights, yes. That’s just the right way to put it.

  3. Lemming permalink
    September 16, 2020 8:29 am

    “Just deserts” or “just desserts” – ??

    the reminds me of my Lake Cottage – and rediscovering the neighbors of many generations on their own terms, rather than on the terms of my forebears.

    • September 17, 2020 4:14 pm

      The generations of vacation neighbors does factor into what happens in the novel, especially thinking you know what a situation is like because you are remembering what it used to be like.
      Desserts are never “just.” They are always “extra”!

  4. September 16, 2020 9:58 am

    I loved this too. Moss writes about family dynamics so well and is so good at depicting different narrative voices.

    • September 17, 2020 4:16 pm

      Yes, you’re so right. The different voices are really well done.

  5. September 16, 2020 10:59 am

    This sounds really excellent, just the kind of novel I am attracted to. Lovely review!

    • September 17, 2020 4:17 pm

      It is an excellent novel, and not too long. I think you’ll like it.

  6. September 17, 2020 4:26 pm

    I was not a fan of Ghost Wall, her lost novel, but you have made this one sound really good!

    • September 17, 2020 4:30 pm

      I had never read anything by her before, but did love this one.

  7. September 17, 2020 5:32 pm

    I just Googled rattlesnakes, and I love that the description says (to paraphrase): their venom is rarely fatal but it can cause internal bleeding… 😳 I guess I’d be pretty alarmed too if I knew there was a nest of them in my yard. I don’t know that I’d feel great about killing them, but I’d at least want to call some version of wild animal control to assess the situation. 😱

    • September 17, 2020 5:37 pm

      I bet that’s what the collection of college professors would have liked to have done, called some version of animal control, but it was the wilds of southern Missouri in the sixties. My guess is that they got some really long sticks and poked at the rattlesnakes enough to move them on, away from the main path. No one got bitten.

  8. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    September 17, 2020 5:53 pm

    This is a great post. When I wrote the novel up I didn’t have space to address everything and the thing I most regretted not thinking and writing more about was the inter-chapters about the land. What you say here about those parts really helps me see how they work. I thought it was actually quite a tense novel, but I see your point that it is also very much about the quotidien. I think that’s Moss: she’s so good at doing both the everyday and the dimly threatening at once! It felt like a thriller to me but also like a quiet series of character studies.

    • September 17, 2020 5:59 pm

      Thank you; of course you are one of the bloggers who put this book on my radar.
      It could be that the everyday feels tense right now and so I didn’t react to how much the novel feels tense.
      Since November 2016 I’ve felt like I need to pay more attention to studying the people around me in case they surprise me like that again. Life is thrilling that way now.

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