Summerwater by Sarah Moss — a storm of messy lives

Cover of Summerwater by Sarah Moss in which a summer camping holiday is ruined by relentless rain

Everyone whose holiday in Britain has been ruined by our fickle summer weather will sympathise with the twelve characters in Summerwater.

Instead of lazy sunny days pootling about on a Scottish loch, the assorted families and couples are driven indoors by heavy and persistent rain. Cooped up in wooden cabins that have seen better days, they are getting edgy. The park is in the middle of nowhere, has no internet connection and no mobile phone signal. The holiday makers find they have little to do but eat, sleep, read — and watch their neighbours.

I’m not even taking photos because who wants to remember this? I can’t exactly post, can I, ‘more rain on more trees, rain again, trees again, more rain, more trees, hashtag summer holiday, hashtag family fun.

Sarah Moss takes her readers through the doors of each cabin, showing the occupants in the span of a single day in August. They’re at different stages of their lives and their relationships but one thing many of them have in common: they are hiding something.

Someone young has a heart condition; someone older drives their “shiny boomer-mobile” too fast on wet roads; a strange man lurks in the woods; a boy paddles his kayak too far out on to the cold water.

One young woman has a heart condition she hasn’t revealed to her family. An older woman hasn’t told her husband about the giddy spells she’s experienced lately. Teenager Becky is so frustrated by life that she wishes she were dead. For relief she slips out at night for a rendezvous in a tent with a soldier.

There’s a pervading sense in Summerwater that something nasty is going to happen. By switching the focus of attention from one cabin to another, Sarah Moss keeps us guessing who will be the victim.

Maybe it’s the teenage boy who has ventured out too far in his kayak when a storm whips up. Or will it be the retired doctor who loves speeding along the narrow roads leading to the cluster of holiday cabins?

More significant is the brewing tension about the Eastern European family whose raucous parties keep all the British families awake. The men keep threatening to go over and remonstrate with the “Romanians” (they don’t really know the family’s nationality). It’s actually a child who takes the first step; acting out the adults’ hostility towards “outsiders.”

Where are you really from Violetta Shitchenko? Somewhere people scream and yell like baboons all night …? “Somewhere people don’t know how to behave? You’re supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not get the message?

Animosity towards people “not from around here” is part of the novel’s commentary on the current political state of affairs. We also get a touch of climate change when the kayaker contemplates his future: “if there’s still a planet to live on, if the insane politicians have spared anything”. And a flicker of anti Brexiteer sentiment from the doctor as he navigates a hairpin bend “a fine smooth EU-funded miracle of engineering … How could the English have been so stupid … how could they not see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city centre regeneration of the last thirty years.”

Despite those references, Summerwater isn’t really a novella with ” a state of the nation” message. Actually I’m not entirely certain what message it does have or what point it is seeking to make. The climate change is of minimal significance and the anti-outsiders thread doesn’t develop in the way we might expect.

Absent an overarching issue or theme, the book ended up being about a bunch of unhappy individuals with messy lives and uncertainties about their future. Moss is excellent at entering into the minds of these holidaymakers and capturing their emotions.

But do we need a novelist to tell us that people are complicated and have problems? Not really. We’re surrounded by people only too ready to sit on the sofa of a daytime tv show and spill forth about their “issues”.

Sarah Moss does however perfectly encapsulate the minutiae that comprises “normal” life and she writes beautifully about the rhythms of nature. So, though I was disappointed the book wasn’t more insightful, I’m keen to read some of her other work. Her debut novel Ghost Wall could be more to my taste.

I read this as part of NovellasinNovember reading event hosted by 746books.com. I’m also counting this as book 18 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022. I’ve actually read 21 books but am way behind with my reviews.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

27 thoughts on “Summerwater by Sarah Moss — a storm of messy lives

  • Pingback: October 2022 Reading Wrap Up : BookerTalk

  • November 14, 2022 at 10:30 am
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    After your review and reading the comments, I think I’ll pass on this one. Thanks all the same.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:09 pm
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      Plenty of other books around for you to enjoy. Sometimes reading other reviews helps you save money because you learn that you can safely ignore that particular book

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  • November 14, 2022 at 10:24 am
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    I felt that Summerwater created such a wonderful sense of tension throughout, that when the ending came, it didn’t really land well. I do think Moss is really great at capturing different narrative voices though, particularly teenagers.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:08 pm
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      I particularly enjoyed the grouchy teenager who just keeps telling herself she wants to die!

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  • November 14, 2022 at 8:21 am
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    I struggled with this one as well; I felt it was building towards a climax that never arrived.

    I like Sarah Moss’s older novels better than her newer novellas – I’d recommend The Tidal Zone.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:07 pm
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      I shall have a look at The Tidal Zone now that another person has left a comment here that makes me think Ghost Wall would be just as unsatisfying.

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  • November 14, 2022 at 6:21 am
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    I like it when a novelist takes normal people outside their comfort zone without having to introduce some extraordinary crime or sociological upheaval. And then analyses how the thin plaster of civilized conduct starts to crumble at an alarmingly fast speed.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:07 pm
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      It’s interesting but only to a certain point – I like to feel that we are moving towards something.

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  • November 14, 2022 at 1:18 am
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    From here in Australia, Brexit remains a complete mystery… but from what I can see, this novel’s Brexit agenda is ambiguous at best.
    As I wrote in my review: Some reviewers make a lot out of the Ukrainians being cast as interlopers as if that makes all the others racist. But from the outset these people behave selfishly. They play very loud music till all hours of the morning. This is inconsiderate behaviour that impacts on the wellbeing of neighbours anywhere, but in a peaceful place where the only sounds should be the sounds of nature, it spoils the ambience for everyone.
    Characters getting cranky with them, it seems to me, has nothing to do with their ethnicity.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:06 pm
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      It had the potential to be interesting but it felt like she skirted around the issues instead of tackling them in any meaningful way.

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      • November 14, 2022 at 10:10 pm
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        I don’t like to be cynical, but ‘political issues’ are tricky for authors in a divided society … they risk offending or alienating one or other of the opposing sides.

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  • November 13, 2022 at 8:18 pm
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    Interesting – I’ve not read Moss, and must admit that the lack of point would bug me, however good the writing is.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:04 pm
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      I think I would have been annoyed if had been a longer book and I’d invested more time in it, only to feel let down

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  • November 13, 2022 at 8:01 pm
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    I think her main message / theme relates to the topical Brexit discussion and how some people view immigrants in Britain. This is a theme, you’ll find in Ghost Wall as well. For me that was a weak point of Summerwater, I didn’t think it felt like a cohesive narrative and the ending was more like an add-on (she said herself in an interview, that she didn’t plan where it was going to go). However, I still absolutely adored the novella. Maybe it’s the case of, either you love her writing or you don’t. Personally, I could just keep reading forever about her small observations, descriptions of characters and their lives. I thought it was spot on and occasionally very funny.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:04 pm
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      There were some elements I really enjoyed – as you say the small observations of life were wonderful. It seemed like she had a good idea for the book but couldn’t quite take it far enough to make it work

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  • November 13, 2022 at 7:58 pm
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    Having read this review; I wanted to comment on this book that I have been struggling with reading; the title is 77 Shadow and it details the odd happenings at Pendleton; an exclusive apartment complex with several affluent residents; one is a senator who seems to have disappeared on the elevator; security filmed/captioned him entering the elevator and he was to go to his third-floor apartment but he never got off nor is seen again…so it’s a puzzler; as well as that of another family with a young boy where the television turns on and gives a detail description of the occupants and says that they must be ‘terminate’. In all, the residents of Pendleton are slowly driven mad or killed and none on the outside can help them…there’s more to read and it is confusing since the chapters are to do with the apartment number resident and some title is about the ‘one’ whose out to kill them all; one is the entity of all entities.
    I could say and I have said this before: I have no idea how anyone knows what I am reading let alone to meet up with me while doing laundry and to act out something that I have read; yet this happened this weekend with some guy speaking in strange language on his earpiece or I am confused but he was annoyingly around me trying and touching the cart I was to have been using all the while my husband was around but none saw this; so I am making it up. I read while the world would prefer that I don’t read; funny my husband reads but none acts out what he’s reading or I don’t notice.
    Anyhow, thanks for sharing; my book is most puzzling and perplexing and I hope to finish it soon since it must be returned to the library as this is a library-borrowed book. Thanks for sharing.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:02 pm
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      That does sound like the kind of novel you just want to keep reading to find out the answers to those puzzling events

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  • November 13, 2022 at 7:32 pm
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    What I loved about this novel is the look at life from different perspectives. I talk a little bit about my own perspective and how the novel enlarges it in my review https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2020/09/16/summerwater-sarah-moss/
    but I could have talked more about how the perspective of the hiker, in particular, is utterly foreign to me but how I can see things through her eyes while we’re getting her point of view in this novel.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 10:01 pm
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      You definitely drew more meaning out of this novel than I did. Thanks for sharing such a perceptive review Jeanne. I loved your story of the encounter with the snakes by the way though if that had happened to me I’d never have been able to stay in that chalet.

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  • November 13, 2022 at 7:32 pm
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    I really want to like Sarah Moss’s work better. She writes on themes that interest me specifically the natural world. But somehow, she’s always disappointed me for the kind of reasons you enumerate. Summerwater’s been a bit on my ‘Do I have to?’ list since it came out.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 9:58 pm
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      You know the answer to that question already don’t you? If you feel like its going to be more of a chore than a pleasure then just skip it and find something you really want to read

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      • November 14, 2022 at 9:59 pm
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        Exactly! It’s a shame. I nearly like her … but not quite enough.

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  • November 13, 2022 at 7:19 pm
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    I struggled with Moss’s Ghost Wall and never got far with it, and plan to try it again for #NovNov’s contemporary novella strand. I fear I may still feel dubious about its intentions, much as you felt about Summerwater.

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    • November 14, 2022 at 9:57 pm
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      Oh dear, it doesn’t sound as if Ghost Wall is going to be all that satisfying

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      • November 14, 2022 at 10:36 pm
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        I’ve got a bit further in now and I suspect it was just me not getting into the style at first, and then also the presence of a particularly obnoxious character. It’s growing on me!

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