‘All day it has rained,’ goes a poem written by Alun Lewis in 1941, while he was stationed with the Royal Engineers in Hampshire, ready for war but not yet called to action. It’s a poem about being bored and being grateful for the boredom since worse is to come. ‘We talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome.’ Beyond the humdrum detail – groundsheets, dirty socks, Woodbines – the mood is ominous. The poem ends with a reference to the death of Edward Thomas. Lewis himself was killed in 1944.
Sarah Moss’s new novel is set in a lochside cabin park in the Trossachs. The poem behind its title is William Watson’s ‘The Ballad of Semmerwater’, about a city lost beneath a lake. But Lewis’s poem seems truer to its spirit, as rain keeps falling, ‘day after day of it, torrential’, ‘ostentatious’, ‘drilling the ground and churning up mud’. Heavy summer rainfall isn’t uncommon in the Trossachs (when I was there last year, the picnic tables were underwater) and the frustration of the dozen voices composing the narrative is easy to understand: male, female, young, old, Scottish, English, they’re fed up with the weather, because it’s August and this is their holiday and they don’t want to spend it cooped up. But something doomier lies beneath the surface. ‘There will be deaths by morning,’ runs a line halfway through the novel, a prompt that’s scarcely necessary since a sense of threat is present from the moment the first of the protagonists, Justine, goes for an early-morning run: self-vaunting about her fitness, she turns out to have a heart murmur, ‘like a fish flopping’, and has been told never to go running alone. As the hours pass and each character in turn steps centre-stage, tensions build. Everyone’s worried about something, and though some of these worries are banal, others are more troubling. Izzie’s fear of a ‘bad thing’ happening after bedtime can’t be discounted simply because she’s a child.
Though her characters are trapped in their heads as well as in their cabins, Moss has fun letting them loose on the page. Where her previous novels have been solemnly invested in their driven, cerebral, mostly female leads, here she’s more prepared to tease. There’s harassed, OCD-ish Claire, for instance, who, given an hour’s reprieve from her small children, wastes the time fretting about how to use it. Or befuddled but sagacious Mary, who believes that ‘getting married is like voting … whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mildly unsatisfactory four years down the line.’ Or Milly, with her ‘retro’ sexual fantasies about being tied up by Mad Men’s Don Draper. Or angry teenage Becky, who has nothing to post on social media because there’s nothing to say, only ‘more rain on more trees, rain again, trees again, more rain, more trees, hashtag summer holiday, hashtag family fun’.
Polyphonic novels stand or fall according to their skill at doing different voices. In a set of close third-person narratives that are light on dialogue, ‘voice’ really means thought, and there’s a lot of thinking, and overthinking, in Summerwater. Even when the characters are doing stuff (running, putting on wellies, making a cup of tea) the action is mostly inner action: while trying to have a simultaneous orgasm with her partner Josh, Milly is also ‘trying not to think about if there’s enough bread for sandwiches’. But we know an Event is coming. The question is what kind and who the victim or victims will be. This isn’t a thriller but accidents are waiting to happen: to our heart-frail (and porn-watching) runner, perhaps, or the teenage boy who goes kayaking, or the old woman who’s losing her mental and physical balance, or the children playing on the swing by the water.
The longer it’s deferred, the more likely it seems that the Event will overtake the whole community (insofar as the occupants of a set of holiday cabins can be called a community) rather than an individual – that we’ll get to know everyone before trouble arrives and that the novel will end with a bang, with no time to ponder the fallout. It’s a risky strategy but no more so than having the Event upfront, and devoting the rest of the novel to the aftermath. That’s the approach Moss took in her fifth novel, The Tidal Zone (2016), which begins with the near death of a teenage girl from a sudden problem with her heart and lungs; the remaining 300 pages aren’t devoid of tension – what’s the diagnosis? Will she die the next time it happens? Will her sister inherit the condition too? – but with the focus on her anxious father, a part-time history lecturer, and on his role as chief carer and his thoughts about modern Britain, including its universities (‘all the Marxist freedom fighters around here are men in jobs for life earning four times the national average wage and owning more than one house’), the tension ebbs away. In Summerwater Moss is sparer, less preachy and enjoys herself more; rather than a monologue of parental anguish stretching out over months, there’s a chorus of frustration on a single day.
The book is a departure for Moss in another respect: it’s set entirely in the present. Three of her earlier novels – Night Waking (2011), Bodies of Light (2014) and Signs for Lost Children (2015) – are largely historical, telling the story of two sisters from 19th-century Manchester: Ally becomes a pioneering doctor in Cornwall; May dies tragically young in Scotland (Night Waking also includes a contemporary narrative about maternal stress and sleeplessness but is equally indebted to archival research). The Tidal Zone also has an historical underpinning, with interludes on the bombing of Coventry and Basil Spence’s designs for its new cathedral. Then there’s Moss’s most recent novel, Ghost Wall (2018), in which child abuse is the ‘real’ story – the teenage narrator is beaten by her working-class dad, just as Ally and May are bullied by their Evangelical middle-class mother – but the setting is an archaeological dig next to Hadrian’s Wall and the denouement a violent re-enactment of ritualistic Iron Age sacrifice. The smell of blood is never far away in Moss’s work. But neither is the smell of the lamp. Her novels are populated by intellectuals, professors, medics and research students – people who know stuff, and whose knowledge informs (and sometimes deforms) the text. There are no eggheads in Summerwater. It feels unburdened, an escape from history and from Moss’s default scholarliness (she published three academic monographs before turning to fiction). It doesn’t aspire to know more than its characters know and they don’t know a lot – only that it’s raining and they feel trapped.
You could call it her breakout novel, which is ironic, since its subject is lockdown. A pandemic of lockdown novels can be expected soon but Moss has got in early, with one that has nothing to do with Covid-19. ‘There won’t be a plane this summer, or next,’ Justine reflects. ‘It probably doesn’t matter, really. But she would have liked the kids to hear languages they don’t speak, or don’t speak yet, to eat food they don’t recognise, to cross roads with the cars on the wrong side, see with their own eyes that the world is wide.’ The travel restrictions are due to her family’s financial constraints, not the virus. But everyone in the cabin park shares her sense of confinement. They mooch about indoors, occasionally venturing out for exercise. They stare through windows, alert to each other’s comings and goings. And with one exception, they’re strict about curfew – no noisy parties allowed.
In one of the cabins are Eastern Europeans – Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, no one seems sure – who’re suspected of having jobs at the local hotel and play loud music long into the night. The daughter, Violetta, looks neglected. Lonely, too, which ought to make her a suitable playmate for Lola, who’s about the same age. But Lola has inherited a hostility to foreigners from her father Steve (whose chapter begins: ‘He’s not being racist’). ‘So, where are you really from, Violetta Shitchenko,’ Lola taunts her. ‘Somewhere people scream and yell like baboons all night and keep everyone awake with their so-called music? … You’re supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not get the message?’ When Violetta is left dangling on a rope over the water, Lola picks up a stone instead of helping her. The reader is left dangling too. Is Violetta’s later absence – and the child’s shoe spotted by the shore – evidence that the Event has happened? Or are they red herrings?
State-of-the-nation novels tend to be long and Summerwater is slim. But it’s attentive to the way we live now and to our divisions. By contrast to Lola and Steve, there’s the retired Scottish doctor, David: ‘How could the English be so stupid, he thinks again pointlessly, 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?’ Arms sales, the refugee crisis, a demented president, teenage self-harm, plastic waste in the oceans: the characters may be stuck indoors with no internet access but the world keeps breaking in as a ‘pointless’ but inevitable object of their thought process. Whereas Moss’s earlier novels have had authorial axes to grind and use history to speak about the present, the opinions voiced in Summerland spring from character. Teenage Becky’s aside on US police methods – ‘in America, she knows, you can get the police to shoot you just by acting a bit weird with your hands in your pockets’ – is part of a riff on the boredom she feels at being locked up with her parents and brother: ‘I want to be dead.’ The state of the cabins, which wouldn’t meet current fire regulations, is a source of worry to her dad and the other parents, but to Becky it’s their saving grace: ‘With one match … she could end the whole thing.’ But that would end things prematurely; at the point Becky considers playing with fire, there are still fifty pages to go.
Polyphonic novels open up perspectives that first-person narratives can’t; they’re a nod in the direction of omniscience or, if that seems a tainted fantasy, of inclusiveness. Summerwater doesn’t offer us diversity as such – its constituents are white and middle-class – but there’s range and vitality to the voices, and they’re complemented by lyric fragments from the woodland fringe of the park, with its bats, deer, foxes, peregrines and moths. Moss’s earlier, more modest experiment in polyphony – five voices rather than twelve – came in her debut, Cold Earth (2009), which, like Ghost Wall, is set on an archaeological dig and features a character or two who don’t have a right to be there, which causes resentment among those who do. Plonked down in Greenland, seemingly far from human habitation, to disinter ancient remains, the protagonists are spooked both by the presence of unknown watchers and by the fear that the plane due to collect them at the end of summer will never turn up. The people in Summerwater also feel watched, if only by one another. And they’re cut off (although Glasgow is just an hour away), because there’s no wifi or phone signal: if something big happened, ‘a tornado or a tidal wave’, they’d never know.
In Cold Earth something big is happening, ‘the virus thing’: the stranded archaeologists get wind of it before their one laptop stops working. To start with they’re dismissive. ‘It’s just a media panic … easy journalism for August. Remember last time, people were actually buying masks and spending God knows how much on fake vaccine on the internet and then the papers lost interest and we got scared about something else.’ Two passing shepherds later update them. ‘There is sickness … England. America of course. All Europe now … There are dead, we hear. It is not good news. You are better here.’ They doubt they are: death by plague might be preferable to the terror they feel that something human, or once human, is stalking them. Relationships in the group fall apart; Lord of the Flies is referenced and hopes of a rescue fade. But the last voice in the book, Nina’s comes from a place of safety:
I’d always wondered how Virginia Woolf could be so flippant about the 1918 Spanish flu in her journal, slipping it in as a joke between Lytton Strachey’s sore finger and Lady Murray’s invitation to lunch, when the death rate in parts of London was higher than it had been in the trenches and people who had been well at breakfast were dead by bedtime and deadly as plutonium to everyone who saw them in between, but I think I understand it now. When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook.
Cold Earth hasn’t been mentioned much in recent recommendations of plague literature (Defoe, Camus, Saramago, Atwood), understandably so, perhaps, since the plague it alludes to stays in the background. But Moss had avian flu in mind while she was writing it and its publication coincided with swine flu. ‘Epidemiology is particularly interesting to novelists,’ she wrote in a recent blog post which went on to argue, in half-jest, that since men are more vulnerable than women to Covid-19 they ‘should be locked down longer and harder’, leaving women and children to run the country. To take an interest in viruses is no longer exceptional – we’re all epidemiologists now – but Moss has long been alert to their potential malevolence.
The set-up of Summerwater looks the same as that of Cold Earth and Ghost Wall – a group of individuals who don’t know each other thrown together in an unfamiliar environment – but this time the characters are kept in their own bubbles; what builds pressure is their failure to interact. There’s plenty of humour as well, including the basic premise: ‘middle-class white people coming here to have less privacy, comfort and convenience than they do at home’. But then night falls and the Event occurs and it’s not funny at all.