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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.

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