Lives intertwine, albeit often from afar, in Sarah Moss’s seventh novel, Summerwater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pages), which is set over the course of a single rainy day in a holiday park on a picturesque Scottish loch. Unable, or in some cases unwilling, to brave the elements, Moss’s 12 characters – holed up in their respective cabins with children, spouses, lovers – end up turning inward, and in so doing reveal themselves to us in a series of deftly rendered psychological portraits. When they do venture out, simple activities suddenly seem risky, menacing. A fortysomething mom, who’s been told not to run because of her heart condition, goes for a run anyway, up a mountain; a teenage boy, looking to escape the claustrophobia of his family, goes out kayaking and ends up hitting frightening headwinds; a young Romanian girl, one of the park’s sole foreigners, gets stuck on a high swing, her predicament eliciting little sympathy from some mean-spirited local girls. Moss, whose previous novels include Ghost Wall (2018) and Night Waking (2011), was born in Glasgow, raised in England, and currently lives in Ireland, where she teaches at University College Dublin.
Like your previous books, this one has a very memorable setting. How did it come about?
I’ve moved around quite a lot – three countries in the last 15 years and moving to the seventh house next week – and rarely go back, because every time you move you leave a life unlived, and I prefer not to think about them. But there’s a place in the Trossachs in Scotland that’s very near where I was born on the outskirts of Glasgow, a loch where my parents took me from infancy for days out and hiking and swimming, to which I’ve returned all my life and to which I’ve taken my kids all their lives. Last time we went, we rented a cabin at the end of the road in midsummer and it rained all day, every day, for the whole week …
So did it strike you, during that wet week, that your presumed misery would be good fodder for a book?
Not straight away. I noticed that I was watching the other households and making up stories about them, partly because there was little other stimulus. I don’t think we were exactly miserable – the various characters who observe that you don’t go to Scotland for the sunshine are right, and we had the right kit to climb mountains in reasonable comfort and safety on wet days – but the relentlessness of the rain became irritating. And interesting. I can’t remember if the idea of the book came then or a little later.
There’s a lockdown feel to this novel; everyone is in a kind of silo despite being physically close …
But family holidays often are a kind of lockdown, no?
Well the gap between expectations and reality can certainly be wide on holidays, and indeed almost everyone in Summerwater is discontented in some way. Are holidays, on the whole, overrated?
I think I tend to distrust any experience that’s so ardently sought, especially when it involves isolation or exclusion. Christmas is definitely overrated! I’m restless and love to travel, but for me the best trips are where we move on every day or two – long-distance hiking is perfect – which may be partly so the expectations are always refreshed. As you suggest, the problem with holidays is the expectation that they will solve dissatisfaction because as all compulsive travellers know, wherever you go, there you are.
How was the writing process compared to your other novels?
I wrote it quite playfully, and the first draft wasn’t much planned before I started, though a plan formed as I wrote the first sections. That’s not a radical departure from how I wrote Ghost Wall, but I think I’ve been becoming gradually more playful with writing over the last few years.
Was writing in so many different voices challenging? Fun? And were there any characters you felt particularly attuned to?
Challenging and fun! I know it’s quite a dark book, but I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope elements of it are fun to read. Interestingly, the characters I enjoyed writing the most are, at least superficially, the least like me: David, the grumpy 70-year-old doctor; Alex, the teenager in his kayak; Mary, the elderly housewife beginning to forget things. … Writing can be like acting. You get to play at being other people.
The natural world has played an important role in your previous work. Here, though, it almost feels like another character…
Good, I wanted that. Or even more than that, that the natural world should be as pervasive and fundamental as it is. I find the distinction between humans and “nature” increasingly bizarre. Our bodies are nature, the food we eat is nature, our diseases are nature, the air we breathe, even the clothes we wear …
Perhaps our tendency to make that distinction, to see ourselves as separate, explains, in part, our failure to respond to imminent environmental collapse …
I’d say so. But I used to work on food history, and it seems so obvious that even the activities we consider least natural – computer programming, say, or indeed writing novels – depend entirely on our bodies and our health, which come from food and water, which come from the earth. As both Virginia Woolf and Wordsworth noted, you can’t write if you can’t eat, and you can’t eat unless someone grows your food. Birth and dying and sex and indeed pandemics are natural!
Can you talk about the title, and the poem it, sort of, derives from?
The title came very late, as they tend to for me – sometimes we have a cover design before there’s a title everyone’s happy with. The poem is in the wonderful 1970s Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, which is a pretty fine anthology however old you are (and a lot of it very dark for young children, though I remember gleefully chanting “Oh keep the wolf far hence, that’s foe to men / Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again” when I was quite little). Mary, the woman who is beginning to find herself losing words and forgetting where she’s put things and what time it is, tests herself by seeing if she can still remember what she’s known all her life, and she once learned and recited The Ballad of Semmerwater at school. It’s a story about a traveller coming late and hungry to a village and being chased away from the households of the rich, which are then flooded. It’s about how a community responds to an outsider, but in the context of my book, it’s also about memory and rhythm.
And yet, to some degree, this is a novel about how a community responds to outsiders; namely, the Eastern European family who arrive in the holiday park.
Yes, and that was in my mind when I chose the ballad. I think we sometimes imagine the dramas of immigration and integration as particularly modern, but of course they’re not. Humans have been moving around since we first evolved.
Your books often end up taking a dark turn, and this one is no exception. Is that darkness something that lures you? Something you seek?
I think what some people see as darkness just looks like reality to me and not inevitably depressing. Writing seems to me an act of resistance to death; writing is a technology of memory. No art without mortality, no love without grief, no courage without fear. I’ve never been interested in pretending that darkness is avoidable, and I think I’ve always believed, since I was a child scaring everyone else with ghost stories, not necessarily in confronting fear and anger but in encountering them. Isn’t that part of the work of art, to find beautiful ways into and sometimes through the unbearable?
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