Sarah Moss has an uncanny ability to prickle the reader’s skin. In 2019′s “Ghost Wall,” she detailed a family’s working holiday on an archaeological dig. As it became increasingly clear that excavating the English past had wakened a primitive blood-lust, Moss took readers into the inchoate space between the living and the dead. And the characters’ excavation of a wall that had been constructed to keep out unknown threats felt timely in the wake of both Brexit and Trump’s Border Wall.
In “Summerwater,” her seventh novel, Moss once again builds a sense that something awful is about to happen, even as she details the mundane activities of holiday makers. In a community of cabins on the shores of a Scottish loch, Moss introduces the cabins’ temporary inhabitants, most of whom stay locked up because of summer drizzle. The book’s action takes place over the course of a rainy weekend, and Moss introduces us to a variety of characters, who, through internal monologues and their interactions with the other holiday-makers, take turns driving the action.
For Becky, the gray isolation exacerbates the perpetual frustration of being a teenager forced to vacation with her family. In response to a parental request, she vents, and Moss captures the syntax of her resentment:
“There isn’t anywhere to go out, she says, who even wants to go out, and in case you haven’t noticed phones are basically useless here, 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.”
Others gathered at the loch include Milly, a young woman pressured to have a simultaneous orgasm with her demanding male partner, Josh, who has read that doing so will make it “a hundred times” less likely that they will divorce, and a teenage boy — Becky’s brother — who ventures out onto the loch in a kayak in order to escape his family. “The rain is pretty horrible, just not as horrible as being in the cabin,” he thinks. Justine rises early in order to run for miles, all the while rehearsing a litany of complaints about her husband, her family, and conducting imaginary arguments with those who have offended her. Steve, who is married to Justine, is a man so limited in his worldview that he is convinced that color doesn’t exist at night — after all, he has never seen colors after dark.
While it might be natural to see a connection between the miserable weather outside and the doldrums of those inside, Moss complicates any such connection. Instead, several of the vacationers blame their unhappiness on the loud party of the previous night at the cabin of a family variously assumed to be “Bulgarian,” “Romanian,” or at any rate to not be “German or French,” the “folk renting [who] knew how to behave.” (Moss passes over in silence the irony of English tourists complaining about “foreigners” in Scotland.) Eastern Europe functions in British right-wing ideology much the same way “Mexicans” figure in Donald Trump’s xenophobic ranting. During the Brexit campaign, resentment fueled by false statistics supplied by right-wing politicians — and hyped by scandal sheets — created a rhetoric that blamed Eastern European immigrants for all manner of ills.
The “noisy neighbors” become the focus for the general malaise that affects those in the other cabins. David, a retired doctor, engages in an angry nostalgia. In the past, the parties he had attended were “different, everyone got together … and the music was real.” He is annoyed about the previous night’s party, but his complaints soon take in everything from having to be aware of his “carbon footprint” to being lectured by young people about racism and sexism. But David also rails against those who voted Leave and failed to see just how much of Britain’s economic recovery had been because of European investments and subsidies.
In a tension-filled chapter whose protagonists are all elementary-school age, children speak out loud the casual xenophobia they hear at home. Lola, the young daughter of Justine and Steve, is sent out with her younger brother into the miserable weather by her mum to get the “fresh air” that English children are told they need in order to thrive. Lola has the makings of a writer or an intellectual with her vibrant imagination and observational thoughts reveal much about her family, but she has no one to nurture those skills. She has recently discovered that she can wind up the adults by “experimenting with the five senses.” For example, she can create a panic by claiming to smell gas fumes and watching as others suddenly smell it too. And while she loves to exert such power, it’s also clear that she has absorbed some of her father’s judgments about who “belongs” at the loch. When she spots Violetta, another girl her age standing and watching the pair, she observes the child’s clothes and decides that wearing denim in the rain is a sign of “who doesn’t belong here,” before mocking Violetta’s last name — Shevchenko — by turning it into an expletive. The rain-soaked game they play chills the reader with a sense that things are about to go too far, as if something is arising out of the murk that will cast a monstrous shadow over the rest of the day.
Moss intersperses chapters detailing her characters’ lives with others in which the land — its geology and other features — speaks to the nature of deep time, the way in which human habitation is a blip on a timeline that stretches back billions of years. But as the day’s events progress, nature takes on human characteristics: “The sky had turned a yellowish shade of grey, the colour of bandages, or thickened skin on old white feet.” The novel’s explosive conclusion feels like witnessing swamp gas bubbling to the surface and catching fire.
Lorraine Berry is a writer living in Oregon. Follow her @BerryFLW.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages, $25