Summerwater by Sarah Moss - book review

Book Review | Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Families at a remote Scottish cabin park are stuck inside on the longest day of the summer, while the rain hammers down. You haven’t experienced a proper British childhood if you didn’t spend at least one summer holiday in a perpetual rain-soaked, chilled-to-the-bone state. And Moss conveys this atmosphere so effectively that you almost feel the cold and the rain seeping through the pages.

‘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 wind is lifting the mist, making a space for her between the rocky trail and the low sky.’

We feel the oppressive weight to the story right from the beginning; the atmosphere feels smothering, dense, thickening, the ‘grey pallor seeping through the trees.’ Cut off from contact with the outside world – there’s no phone service up there – holidaying families must turn inwards, forced into spending time together.

Through vignettes, we get a peek into the lives of those inside the cabins. There are married couples with nothing in common except their children; a boyfriend and girlfriend in their twenties in the heady stages of new love, angry and misunderstood teenagers pissed off at spending their holiday stuck in a cabin with their parents, of all people. The second thing that Moss excels at is shifting into these different voices in a way that feels authentic and empathetic – whether it’s the bored teen or woman with early stages of dementia or young girl, her astute observation of human interaction is really something to behold.

‘You can’t wait for the fucking weather, not here, you’ll be dead before it stops raining.’

But you can’t forget the building tension as the day wears on, and the humming undercurrent of racism and xenophobia. A British-Ukrainian family staying in one of the cabins, the Shevchenkos, are assumed to be illegal immigrants and referred to variously and carelessly as Romanian, Polish and Bulgarian. Whilst some holidaymakers continue to scapegoat the ‘foreigners’, others lament the idiocy of the Brexit vote, the English ‘stupid… not [to] see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city centre regeneration of the last 30 years.’ The renegotiation of national identity is such a key preoccupation that Moss can’t ignore it.

Nothing much happens in this slender book – if you like plot-driven narratives, this isn’t for you – but the masterful way the tension and sense of unease is built, in both the depiction of the natural and interior worlds, is absolutely worth reading – and the ending will leave you with chills.