Summerwater, by Sarah Moss, takes place over a single day of unrelenting rain at a vacation site in the Scottish Trossachs. Families are huddled in damp holiday cottages, a “muddle of softening wooden walls” with “eyes at every window.”
“I’m not even taking photos because who wants to remember this,” complains a teenage girl. “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.'”
The narration jumps fleetly between characters: The teenage boy trying to find a place to masturbate, the mother who gets an unexpected hour of free time and wastes the whole thing deciding what to do with it, or a married couple stealing time away from each other, “the opposite of dancing, a daily game of hide and seek in which the unspeakable objective is to avoid the beloved.”
These British families are all preoccupied with the Eastern European family that throws loud parties in the vacation site. The dads are always on the verge of going over and “saying something” to the “Romanians” (or Poles or Ukranians) about the noise (though it gradually becomes clear that they would quite like to be invited to the loud parties).
But to identify the book’s themes as domestic or interpersonal would be to miss what makes Moss’s work so distinctive: the lovely countermelodies of earth, animal, and sky that contextualize human dramas, the way her work has that special “seriousness accorded to the ground under our feet only by toddlers and botanists,” as one character thinks while watching her young daughter study rocks.
Summerwater is full of little half rhymes between human and other, between domestic and wild: the way coffee steam rises like “the mist between the trees,” the way rain “simmers” in puddles like water on the stove. This correspondence is most apparent in the pattering, sensual way she writes about water, as something in us and outside of us, flowing through us, and making us up, a reminder that we are not as separate from the natural world as we sometimes think. (The same idea is acted out, in less elevated form, when we spit off ledges into bodies of water: “There’s something about fatal drops that makes you want to launch a bit of yourself, just a mouthful, over the edge,” a character thinks).
These little correspondences between human and animal are often funny: The drowned slugs from one character’s wet morning run (“Things shouldn’t be made like that, unprotected, lying around waiting for sharp beaks and fleet wings, for boots and tyres.”) are reincarnated a few chapters later in another character’s dispiriting morning sex:
Oh, Josh has gone soft, which isn’t surprising, with her lying around like this. And she doesn’t like the feel of it soft, you realise there’s no bone, so to speak, just a defenceless — well, not a slug, nicer than that, but some hairless new-born mouse or rabbit, something that really shouldn’t be out on its own …
Clouds are described as the color of bruises, sky the color of dead skin. Everywhere Moss reminds us that we are earthly, embodied, vulnerable. Moss threads this novel with incipient violence, and whether it will be human or natural, or both, is left to the final pages. Everyone has some fragility, some weak spot: the runner with a bad heart, the elderly man who takes the curving roads too fast, the teenager who paddles his kayak to the middle of the loch in stormy weather.
Summerwater opens with a pulsing, glorious description of a woman running. The words feel oxygenated:
She thinks of the blood pulsing on one side of her skin and rain on the other, the thin membrane so easily opened, of the threads of blood in water … There are waterways through the soil, aren’t there, trickles and seeping, and the branching streams within her body, the aortic river and the tributaries flowing from fingers and toes, keeping her going. Faster, then. Faster.
The sequence reminded me of the first section of Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake,” which is famously set around these same lochs and describes a deer flying from hunters: “dashing down a darksome glen, / Soon lost to hound and Hunter’s ken.”
But the novel’s more explicit poetic predecessor is “The Ballad of Semmerwater” by William Watson. In it, a beggar asks for food and is cast out of the town unfed. He curses it, and the city is swallowed by a lake, where now “In a king’s tower and a queen’s bower / The fishes come and go.”
It’s a poem about welcoming strangers, of course, one of Moss’s persistent themes, including in her wonderful recent novel Ghost Wall. But it is also about deep time, how personal dramas are swallowed by wind and water along with the towns and civilizations. In Moss’s novels you feel, as W.H. Auden wrote, how the “glacier knocks in the cupboard, / The desert sighs in the bed, / And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.”
In Summerwater, the land of the dead is never far off. Moss builds elliptical, mounting dread throughout the novel to prepare us for the catastrophe that comes at the end. But in the way she swoops and zooms through time and space, Moss also teaches us to ask, as she puts it in one of her interludes: In the midst of uncertainty and frailty, should the history of the ground under our feet “comfort us, in geological time?” Does it all seem to matter more, or less, if we remember the sighing desert, the knocking glacier, the creatures who came before us and will come after?
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