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von Sarah Moss

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Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall made a real impression on me ( so I thought I’d read another of her novels. This one also left me impressed.

The book is set on the shores of a Scottish loch where holiday-goers rent cabins. The duration is only one day, but days of pouring rain mean that people are again cooped up inside. Through twelve third person stream-of-consciousness chapters, the reader becomes intimately familiar with twelve characters, inhabitants of the holiday cabins. Family dynamics are revealed through the perspective of different family members; for example, a chapter may be devoted to a wife/mother and later another chapter will present the point of view of the husband/father or that of the couple’s child.

A portrait of life at different stages is presented. Young children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged parents, and retirees all make an appearance. The inner lives of these characters are revealed: their unfiltered thoughts and concerns. A young woman, a feminist, is conflicted because of her sexual fantasies. An elderly woman is suffering from memory loss. Moody teenagers want privacy and time away from parents and siblings. A child has to face nighttime fears. Spouses want space from their partners.

What left me in awe is the authenticity of the various characters. Each emerges as a distinct personality. But what also becomes clear is that everyone is very self-absorbed, pre-occupied with his/her frustrations and worries. There is often little connection among family members, but the inhabitants of each cabin are also isolated from people in the other cabins. People observe their neighbours and pass judgment on their appearance or behaviour, but don’t interact with them.

Between the human chapters are brief interludes focused on nature, on what is happening around the humans. There’s a doe with her fawn on the watch for wolves, birds and small creatures staying sheltered and hungry because of the unrelenting rain, and ants closing entrances to keep rain out of the anthill. These sections emphasize that nature too has its concerns and evoke a feeling of timelessness.

Throughout the novel, there is a palpable sense of foreboding. In the first nature interlude, there’s a comparison between the sounds of water and the sounds of blood and air in the human body and an ominous ending: “You would notice soon enough, if it stopped.” The first human chapter has a woman running a long distance alone despite her having been told by her doctor, “there’s to be no more running. And if you really won’t take my advice at the very least don’t go far, don’t push yourself, don’t ever run alone.” Something terrible will happen; the question is who will suffer. Will it be the teenaged boy who goes kayaking and then realizes he might have gone too far as the wind and waves assault his craft? Will it be the teenaged girl who sneaks out to see a man illegally camping nearby? Why is a man hiding in the woods and watching from the shadows every night at dusk? And then one of the nature interludes ends with “There will be deaths by morning.”

Despite the somber tone, there are touches of humour. A woman’s thoughts wander during sex and she thinks, “you can’t expect a man to give you an orgasm if you keep thinking about particulates and genocides.” A woman describes getting married “like voting in that whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mildly unsatisfactory four years down the line.” A woman thinks she and her husband should have sex soon: “even when she doesn’t feel like it, it seems to be good for them, like oiling your bike chain, doesn’t have to be fun but it stops things falling apart.”
I know I’m not the first to compare this book to Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor ( I found both novels totally immersive. And the last chapter grabs the reader and won’t let go, even long after the book has been closed.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog ( and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | May 9, 2021 |
Sarah Moss’s Summerwater is one of those novels that has drawn praise from professional critics on both the U.S. and the U.K. All that I knew about it going in was that it was short (201 numbered pages) and that it was supposed to have some kind of tragic/impactful/heartbreaking ending that kind of sneaks up on the reader. I can verify that the page-count is accurate, but the ending is more like getting blindsided by a freight train than having something surprise you by slowly sneaking up on you.

And that makes this a tricky novel to review. One slip and the freight train is derailed before it even reaches the neighborhood.

Summerwater is the story of a group of strangers who happen to be staying in a Scottish holiday camp during the same week, a week during which it seems mostly to be raining so often that the various families are largely confined to their cabins where they surreptitiously spy on each other through slatted windows. With one exception, everyone pretty much seems to be from either Scotland or England. The outsiders are from Eastern Europe - the others think - and depending on whom you ask that family is characterized as Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, or Romanian. Everyone is so certain that they know the family’s origin that no one makes an effort to verify any of the assumptions. They don’t speak to the foreigners at all, but for that matter, they barely speak to each other either.

In what could pass for a collection of interconnected short stories as much as anything else, Moss introduces the families to the readers one at a time. Each “story,” of course has the same setting and sometimes the characters do have the kind of interaction that requires a little more from them than staring at, and wondering about, each other. The characters run the gamut from the elderly to toddlers, and their lives from contentment to despair. Some of what is going on behind closed doors is laugh-out-loud funny, and some of it will bring a tear to your eye. Moss truly is a good writer, and the structure works well. For the most part, her adult characters are witty and observant, if more than a little standoffish, such as one wife who is desperate for a little alone-time because all the rain. She thinks:

“…setting aside the violent and deranged, getting married is like voting in that whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mildly unsatisfactory four years down the line.”

My favorite chapter of them all is “Zanzibar,” a snippet during which Moss places the reader inside the minds of Josh and Millie, who are on the verge of marriage, during the sex act itself. The contrast between what each is thinking, as opposed to what each believes the other must be thinking and experiencing is hysterical at times. Let’s just say it is a very good thing that neither of them is a mindreader.

But that freight train is still out there somewhere.

Bottom Line: Summerwater is as enjoyable as it is memorable, but for entirely different reasons. However, the ending left me a bit confused because of something that is only hinted at about one of the characters. I’m still not sure exactly why what happens at the end actually happens; perhaps, that’s what Moss was going for, perhaps not. And, too, maybe I just missed something. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. ( )
  SamSattler | Mar 8, 2021 |
Summerwater, the latest novel(la) by Sarah Moss, is set in a cabin park in the Trossachs, where several disparate families are on holiday. Although its ‘action’ is spread over one long (rainy) summer’s day, the novel does not follow a traditional narrative and does not really have a plot – at least, not in the conventional sense. This notwithstanding, it is very tautly structured, and one of its striking characteristics is its formal elegance.

Each of its short chapters is written from the point of view of one of the residents of the different lodges. These chapters are, in turn, separated by brief vignettes (barely a page in length), in which the focus shifts to the natural world. Half-way through the novel, we start revisiting each of the cabins, through the thoughts of a different resident, giving the book a vaguely palindromic feel. The only characters in the story whose viewpoint we do not get to share are, tellingly, the holidaymakers who are seen as outsiders by the rest – a Ukrainian group with a penchant for noisy, boozy parties and an Iraqi war veteran who is staying in a tent in the woods.

Summerwater shares some of its themes with Sarah Moss’s previous novel Ghost Wall. There is an underlying violence, which is only hinted at in the earlier parts of the book and comes to the surface at the end (although not exactly in the way one might expect). There are references to sexual/gender politics and feminist themes, as well as to the issues of racism and xenophobia. Finally, there’s a Hardyesque sense of “deep time” with the eternal cycles of nature serving as the backdrop to the transient tragedies of man. Surprisingly, the novel’s stream of consciousness approach leaves for a healthy streak of humour which balances the novel’s darker aspects.

I must admit that, on the whole, I enjoyed Summerwater less than Ghost Wall. Despite the author’s attempts to differentiate between the characters, the narrative voices seemed too similar, making it difficult to really empathize with the characters. Yet, there’s still much to admire in the book and, at novella length, it never outstays its welcome. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Mar 5, 2021 |
A beautiful cinematic series of vignettes centered around vacationers and locals in Scotland. The loch looms heavy, as does rain, and character sketches. Especially riveting is the opening of a woman running in the pouring rain and we the reader are inside her head. It's great. It's moody and funny and lyrical. Sarah Moss has in Summer-Water isolated the inner thoughts of everyday people from various backgrounds to build up a thoughtful novel-of-vignettes approach that I really love. The pacing is perfect with a build up of tension, like atmospheric pressure, building with each story and each section fits, dovetails, and collides with the next in the most natural way possible. By the end you will be going back in for a reread to see how Sarah Moss has done what she has with this masterful short novel. ( )
  modioperandi | Feb 18, 2021 |
The events in this short novel take place in a long cul-de-sac in a chalet park adjacent to a loch in the Trossachs of Scotland on the longest day of the year, a day notable for unrelenting heavy rain. The focus is on several middle class English inhabitants of five of the cabins at its end, a retired elderly couple in one, and the others by people on holiday: a young couple nearing marriage, and three families of four, two with two young children, the other with two miserable teenagers whose out of touch parents cannot fathom why their kids are so unhappy. The sixth cabin holds a group of Eastern Europeans, who insist on hosting all night parties with extremely loud music that keep their neighbors awake and add both to the others' dislike of the foreigners, as well as the tension on a day when escape from one's own family members is difficult at best.

The book's chapters consist of several characters' internal dialogue, as they worry about their family members and their own lives, which is even more magnified in their closed settings. Overriding everything is a heavy sense of foreboding in the reader, and as tensions build within each cabin it seems obvious that something bad will happen at the end of this day — but to whom?

Summerwater is a well crafted novel that was compelling and filled with twists and turns that kept my attention from the first page to the last. Once again, Sarah Moss' superb ability to portray the lives and thoughts of everyday people makes for a very interesting book, and one that I would highly recommend, especially for anyone who is new to her writing. ( )
2 abstimmen kidzdoc | Jan 23, 2021 |
Everyone is hiding something and the rain won’t stop in the Ghost Wall writer’s nightmarish tale of a day spent holidaying by a loch...Moss’s ability to conjure up the fleeting and sometimes agonised tenderness of family life is unmatched, and here, as in The Tidal Zone in particular, she sketches so lightly the all-but-invisible conflicts and compromises that can make cohabitation both a joy and a living hell..... Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier....A great part of a novelist’s skill lies in the breadth of their sympathies and their ability to enter into the lives of people unlike themselves. Moss does this so naturally and comprehensively that at times her simple, pellucid prose and perfectly judged free indirect speech feel almost like documentary or nonfiction – there is an artfulness to her writing so accomplished as to conceal itself. In Summerwater, as in Ghost Wall, Moss’s politics are crystal clear; but it’s the messy complexities and frailties we all harbour about which she has the most to say.
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