This is an astonishingly powerful book. The audiobook is only four and a half hours long but I felt, when I completed it, that I’d been on a long and absorbing journey that must have lasted for days. When I looked up and tried to summarise what the book was about, I realised that actually, nothing much happened and what did happen was in the final pages and left me to draw my own conclusions. I realised I had just spent four and half hours inside the heads of various people who were spending a miserable, rainy midsummers day in run-down chalets next to a loch in Scotland.
The start was stunning and yet the action consisted of a forty-something woman on holiday in a cabin in Scotland with her husband and her kids, going for a dawn run in the rain. The stunning part was that, from the first sentence to the last, I was completely inside her head. Listening to her interior monologue as she ran, I learned about her history, her hopes, her relationship with her husband and why she runs. It was marvellous. As was the next head I spent time in and the one after that and the one after that. I felt great empathy for a young mother who when granted an hour free from her kids by her meaning-to-be-considerate husband, spent twenty minutes of the hour trying to decide what to do with her hour’s freedom and wondering if her husband would be disappointed if she used it to finish cleaning the chalet so she could relax in a space free from other people’s dirt.
But there was more to the book than a series of opportunities for risk-free voyeurism. In between the head-hopping, there was a series of reflections on the geography and geology of the area, raising my awareness of the vast spans of time it had been there and the slow but inexorable rate of change and both the insignificance and the importance of how a single midsummer’s day was spent. As I went from head to head, I understood more about how these people saw each other. The way that they misunderstood, envied, empathised with or were offended by each other because of differences in age and class and expectations and, in the case of one child, a frightening but believable psychopathy that no one wanted to admit they’d noticed.
The story slowly moves around the only people whose heads we never get inside of, a group of Romanians who work during the day and party loudly in their cabin at night. There was no psychodrama here. No heavy hints of misdeeds or inexorably escalating conflict, just a sense that they had everyone’s attention because they were ‘other’, not ‘us’. How they were treated became a litmus test of ‘us’ rather than an assessment of ‘them’.
This was my first time reading Sarah Moss and the quality of her writing, the depth of her vision and the subtlety of her storytelling amazed me.
I’m certain that ‘Summerwater’ is one of those books that I would get more out of with each re-read, not because there’s anything impenetrable in the writing or the plot but because it seemed to me that as I was being taken inside the heads of all these people, I was being asked ‘And what do you think? How like these people are you? What would you do in their place? How do you feel about that?’ and I know my answers would change over time.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version. Morven Christie’s narration was a joy to listen to. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear her for yourself:
Of course, I may end up buying the ebook version just so that, next time, I can look in more detail at how Sarah Moss works her magic. In November, when Halloween Bingo is over, I’ll be reading the only other Sarah Moss book in my TBR pile ‘The Tidal Zone’.
Sarah Mossis an English writer and academic. She has published six novels, as well as a number of non-fiction works and academic texts. Her work has been nominated three times for the Welcome Book Prize.
She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin’s School of English, Drama and Film in the Republic of Ireland.