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“Summerwater” by Sarah Moss

Summerwater is English writer, Sarah Moss’s seventh novel and occupies familiar territory. Moss writes particularly eloquently about the complicated and often fractured relationships which make up the nuclear family. In Summerwater her gaze falls upon a handful of different families who have chosen to spend -what appears to be the wettest summer ever- in a chalet park in the Scottish Highlands. There’s nothing much to do and little means of escape with the rain pouring down incessantly. Trapped inside their tiny chalets, the characters in Moss’s novel begin to interrogate their own family dynamics and closely observe how the other families are navigating this same bleak experience. 

Set across the course of a single day which ends tragically around midnight, each chapter in Summerwater explores a different character’s point of view through a close third person narration. As with all of Sarah Moss’s writing this is a tightly observed and incredibly effective and affecting piece of writing. Moss excels when she explores what it means to be human in community and the dreadful isolation which can still be felt within a family unit. Her writing is shot through with little vignettes of family life which are oh so familiar, and rendered with warmth, wit and dignity. (I especially loved her description of Justine attempt to wrestle her way into a sports bra and almost dislocating her shoulder in the process).

Early in the novel we meet David, a retired doctor who is holidaying in his privately-owned chalet with his wife, Mary. From David’s narrative we begin to piece together that Mary is most likely displaying the early symptoms of dementia whilst David is doing his best to set his professional judgment aside and convince himself there is nothing wrong with her. Later in the novel, Mary gets a chapter to herself. The way she thinks about and articulates her growing confusion is a particularly interesting example of a character whose inner life is at odds with the outer image she’s attempting to portray. Mary has just become aware of her condition. She is beginning to misplace nouns and confuse old memories. Though willing to acknowledge that something’s wrong, she is just as reluctant as her husband to take steps towards dealing with the problem.

“You mind your own business, she wants to say, but she says, oh, just going through my bag, it’s getting a bit heavy. Looking for the thing. Looking for the word for the thing. He’d only worry, or take her off to the doctor, and they can’t do anything, can they, about -well, about this kind of thing. If that’s what it is.”

Like all the characters in Summerwater, David and Marys’ story highlights a fundamental failure in communication. None of these characters are being honest with each other. In David and Mary’s case, they’re not even being honest with themselves. And if language and conversation are already failing this couple so early in their experience of Dementia, it does not bode well for their future together. Whilst the section which engages with Dementia only occupies about a fifth of Summerwater it’s still an essential compelling read, which manages to capture in 200 short pages, the essence of human disconnection. Tellingly, Mary’s chapter in the novel, ends with these stark, but poignant lines.

“He is still looking at her.

She does not look back.”

Summerwater was published by Picador in August 2020

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