The seventh novel from English writer Sarah Moss, Summerwater (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb. 2021), is a slim book with a lot to unpack. Like Ghost Wall, her breakout work in the U.S. (published by FSG last year), it concerns an ill-fated expedition to a remote part of Great Britain. Stuffed with ideas about people’s relationship to nature and questions of national identity, the book, bereft of a central hero, takes up the point of view of a different character in each chapter.
“I was thinking of it almost as a relay race—that each time there’s an interaction across households, the narrative baton passes on,” says Moss, speaking over Zoom from her house in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, where she’s surrounded by bare white walls.
Summerwater, which is set in the Scottish Highlands and follows several families who rent neighboring cabins in a national park, is a strange, episodic mix of interconnected scenes and lyrical interludes. It’s not clear where the story is going until at least halfway through the work.
Though Summerwater is not a thriller, Moss keeps the reader turning the pages by imbuing each chapter with a sense of foreboding. Some of the characters run into danger—a treacherous rope swing, a solitary paddle across a blustery loch, a secret nighttime excursion to a man’s illegal campsite on the fringe of the park—while others hang back and watch the goings-on from their cabins. The dynamic creates an unsettling sense of voyeurism, more so when the gaze of most of the watchers converges on one particular cabin, where loud music is played at all hours by the “foreigners” who are renting it.
When asked if she began with a plan to subvert the reader’s expectations about thriller motifs or if she was just having fun, Moss, who teaches creative writing at University College Dublin and has published scholarly works on 19th-century literature, says she was “entirely playing.” She doesn’t think like an academic when she starts a work of fiction, she adds. Ideas come later.
“The more I proceed on instinct and in the spirit of playfulness, the better it tends to be,” Moss says. She notes that her first novel, Cold Earth, “tends to be read as much more thrillerish than the later ones.” Often that instinct leads her to start with an old-fashioned plot form. “It’s an obvious way of building a novel, and it’s fun.”
Moss’s previous novel, Ghost Wall (a PW Best Book of 2019), is about a man who, obsessed with the Iron Age and the bog people, forces his teenage daughter to come along with him for a reenactment in the remote English countryside, where they strive to live as ancient Britons. Moss grew up in a family of hikers in Northern England and spent nearly every weekend in the mountains. She found the germ for Ghost Wall while on a writing residency in Northumberland.
The novel was read primarily as a Brexit book in the U.K., so Moss says she was surprised to see it make such an impact in the U.S. She believes now that this may be due to the fact that readers in Europe and the U.S. picked up on a broader theme of nationalism, which is also present in Summerwater.
In Ghost Wall, nationalism is dramatized through an obsessive, dangerous drive to authentically reenact the lives of the characters’ forebears; in Summerwater, the English and Scottish strangers are united around their outrage over the presence of a group of people who they assume, by the sound of their accents, have come from overseas.
The first character the reader meets in Summerwater is a middle-aged woman named Justine, who goes for a run through the park in the early morning despite the heavy rain. When she notices a tent pitched at an illegal campsite, her initial fears about “murderous nutters” give way to a more charitable estimation, as she remembers camping outside of bounds, as a young person, to avoid paying fees.
Justine’s husband, Steve, in contrast, is less benevolent toward the perceived interlopers, and is particularly irate over the loud cabin. It doesn’t matter that they’re “foreign, Romanian or what have you,” he says. “They can stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to, but they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.” Steve does not know, however, that the mother of the partying family, Alina, is from Ukraine and has lived in the U.K. for 20 years, or that her daughter is English.
Summerwater came together quickly for Moss after a stay with her family in a holiday park in Scotland, similar to the park where the book is set. Like the characters, they were met with two weeks of rain, but still they went out to climb mountains. “What are you going to do, sit inside for two weeks?” she asks. “We also became fairly fascinated by everybody else in the holiday park, and I was thinking how odd it was that there were these families who were kind of stuck in this place but still weren’t talking to each other.”
Moss says she brought her own children up the way she was raised, encouraging them to spend time outdoors and to believe “climbing mountains is what normal people do.” She also says she gives herself a couple hours each day for running, like her character Justine, in order to quiet her thoughts.
“I have this fantastic Joycean run,” Moss says, “that starts in Dún Laoghaire and goes along the coast that Joyce writes about, past the Forty Foot bathing place, Sandy Cove, Dalkey, and then up a Killarney Hill, where on a clear day, you can see the tops of the Welsh mountains.”
As a resident of County Dublin, Moss has the right to use the local running paths during the county’s Covid-19 lockdown, but they’re closed to outsiders—even to Irish people from other counties. “I barely know where the county boundaries are,” she says. “I don’t belong here.”
As she wrote Summerwater, Moss was thinking about the attitudes about public space that emerge in moments of popular nationalism such as Brexit. “It’s a really dangerous kind of blood and soil narrative, where you earn the right to be in a place and there’s no distinction between the right to be in a place and the right to exclude other people,” she says. “In some ways those issues have only become more vexed with Covid. Some of my neighbors are getting really cross about people coming from other parts of Dublin to walk here, which they’re doing because they’re not allowed to go anywhere else.”
When it’s pointed out to Moss that the “foreign” characters are the only ones who seem to be having any fun in Summerwater, she admits to reserving a special rage for people who make noise while she’s trying to write. As such, she claims that when she began the book, her sympathy was with the characters who objected to the loud music. But as she finished, with the lockdown in effect, she realized it’s “kind of wrong” to hate the sound of others having fun.
“Over the summer, cases dropped and restrictions lifted,” Moss says. “So everybody was socializing in their gardens, and it was so nice to lie in bed and hear people having real-life human interactions with each other and listening to music and enjoying each other’s company.”