Book Review: Summerwater by Sarah Moss

I wasn’t planning to read Sarah Moss’s new book Summerwater at the moment, not least because I have still got tons of reading I want to do for August’s Women In Translation month. But after watching her online Edinburgh Book Festival session (free to watch until the end of the month), I just had to download the book immediately and make a start.

In just 125 pages, Moss draws the reader in to a familiar scene – a rainy UK self-catering holiday, in this case in the Scottish Highlands. We work our way through a 24hour period, meeting twelve of the campsite’s residents as they ruminate on how well (or otherwise) their longed-for break is turning out. Even though it is so short, you feel as if you know these people. Moss’s rendition of each character’s perspective is packed with insight and I couldn’t help but spot similarities with people I know or seem to know, or (even more painfully), with myself.

Here is David, a recently retired GP, out on a drive with his wife:

“He takes the road fast. Well, he’s been driving it thirty years, hasn’t he, knows it the way he knows human anatomy. Mary reaches for the handle above the window and hangs on, inhales as if to speak but says nothing. He changes gear, wonders what will be the last knowledge to leave him, will his neural pathways forget their own directions before he loses their map, will the city that’s been home all his life swirl and blur while he still holds all those medical-school mnemonics? Will he remember his mother’s long-buried face when he can no longer name the Prime Minister? He’s still capable of learning, of course. Keeps up with the BMJ and he’s going to sign up for those Italian lessons this autumn. Might even go to Italy, next summer, if they do sell the cabin, might as well. Hike the vineyards, Mary could look at art. Oops, bicycle. Rather him than me, in this weather. David, for goodness’ sake, says Mary, you nearly hit that poor lad, will you slow down for the love of God. He accelerates into the next bend, feels the back wheels slide just fractionally as he and she tilt inwards. That’s what ABS is for, isn’t it, and all the other acronyms for which he paid so much? You couldn’t throw this car off the road if you tried. If you won’t slow down, she says, you can just pull over right here and let me out, I’ll walk back. She won’t.”

This is Steve, who can’t sleep:

“He rubs his neck, catches sight of the movement in the mirror over the basin. It feels as if there’s one of those round stones from the beach lodged in there, and his reflection looks pale, uneasy, the face of a man who didn’t expect to be caught. Maybe it’s a brain tumour, don’t they start with headaches? Maybe he’s going to die, maybe that’s why he’s been so tired recently, not, as Justine likes to imply, too many bacon sarnies and not enough running but a tragic disease striking him down in his prime. Well, prime might be pushing it. You probably don’t notice when you’re in your prime, do you; in fact, if you’re thinking about your prime it’s almost certainly over.”

And Claire:

“She brought a whole plastic storage box of toys from home, trying to choose those of interest to both children, which is an efficient use of space and/ or a recipe for fights..[…]…She carries Pat over to the toybox and kneels down, tries not to let herself think that all they’ve achieved by spending so much money to be away from home for two weeks is to deprive themselves of the usual resources for passing the time: resources such as the swimming pool, which is hellish while you’re doing it but worth it afterwards when the kids are exhausted and most of the day has gone by the time you’ve reached it on the bus with the buggy and got both of them and yourself changed and put things in lockers and let Izzie have the key pinned on her costume and taken her to pee and inflated all the armbands and helped both of them into the water and played at mummy and baby seals or water pixies or whatever and praised Izzie’s doggy-paddle and applauded when Pat propels himself half a metre and remembered how you used to swim miles, up and down, tumble turns as you’d learnt at school, twice a week before work, just silent swimming with other silent swimmers, and lifted them both out of the water which is tricky, like that puzzle with the chicken and the fox in the boat, and gone back to the changing room and through the shower and put them into dry clothes and then sorted yourself, double quick, don’t really bother drying because it’s while you’re vulnerable without your knickers or your glasses that one of them’s going to go drown itself….[…]…And here, she thinks, setting out the plastic fences, we must make our own fun. She must make their own fun.”

At the start, this all seems rather benign. A window on the world of these holiday-makers. An opportunity to nosy in on their respective worlds with that delicious sense of being the only one who sees everything from all angles. You get involved and so do not notice the subtle building of tension as time goes by. Moss’s writing is highly skilful. It is all so ordinary, and yet a word or phrase here and there shows perfectly how the drama of politics, of climate change, of racism are inexorably woven through all our lives, no matter what we are doing – even when we are in the equivalent of a cabin in the Scottish Highlands.

I read Moss’s last book, Ghost Wall, a while back and did not enjoy it as much as everyone else seemed to. I’m not sure why, and after Summerwater, I’ll definitely be going back to that and her other work. This is highly recommended – definitely one of my books of the year so far.


25 thoughts on “Book Review: Summerwater by Sarah Moss

  1. Oh my! I’ll be right over to the Book Festival session forthwith! (One of the true blessings from this pandemic – this wealth of opportunities to enjoy such sessions which would previously have been closed to many of us.) I knew about this book and have it on the list to read after I’ve read the remaining Moss I already have here. Have you read Signs for Lost Children? A standout book for me when I read it in 2018. On the strength of it I bought the two preceeding books which loosely form a trilogy and was slightly disappointed in the first (Night Waking). Had I come to that one first I may not have gone on to more of her books. So a lot hinges on Bodies of Light, the middle book. That said, even if that too, disappoints, I think I shall continue to read her work: she’s a talented writer who is slowly getting the recognition she deserves I hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so right about access to online book festivals. The EIBF has had an amazing array of free sessions which is incredible, if a bit painful for my TBR list!! Thanks for the recommendation about SfLC. I might have a go at Night Walking first and will bear in mind your note of caution.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree – I’m pretty sure I would not have given the book a second look if I hadn’t watched the event. Another reason why we love book festivals! Am just off to watch the Olivia Laing and Helen MacDonald sessions now – what a great way to spend an evening! 😀📚

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like an excellent read, Liz. It is on pre-order on Kindle so will look for it in the coming months. What I am most interested in is how writers, who create situations and characters in this type of narrative structure, manage to find a way to construct personalities without embedding them with their personal experiences, views, stereotypes and believe systems. This form of writing is a testament to how difficult it is to create meaningful characters with unique personalities. I marvel at this ability. Another brilliant book review and a wonderful introduction. Enjoyed the discussion on the link you provided.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Becky, and yes you are so right – it is a very skilful way of writing. And I’m so pleased you found the Book Festival link – it has been an amazing online event these past couple of weeks.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh crikey, I really don’t need any more books to read but this sounds irresistible, it’s making every word count isn’t it? I must go and have a look at EBF, thank you I hadn’t thought of doing that!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have enjoyed the Edinburgh sessions I have watched so far! It’s so great to be able to watch from the other side of the world.

    I am tempted by this book!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read really mixed reviews of this, but yours is so positive, and it attracted me anyway, so I’ll give the podcast a go if I can access it (and I think I’m too late) and read the book when I can get hold of it. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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