FEBRUARY 21, 2021
MOST NOVELISTS WHO want to embed sophisticated ideas in their fiction resort to long stretches of dialogue. In the traditional philosophical novel, loquacious characters are the vehicles for politics or principles. Sarah Moss is different. She favors realism and interiority. In each of her stylish, cerebral novels, ideas are thought, not declared.
Moss writes fiction of unusual philosophical and emotional density, often by focusing on the inner life of academics. Thankfully though, she abstains from writing campus novels. The lectern and the classroom stay out of sight. In her debut, Cold Earth (2009), five archaeologists and a literary scholar are excavating the remains of a Norse colony in Greenland when they realize that a pandemic is ravaging the rest of the world. In her second novel, Night Waking (2011), a historian is on a remote island in the Hebrides when one of her two young sons discovers an infant skeleton. In The Tidal Zone (2016), another historian spends days in an NHS hospital after his daughter mysteriously collapses. These, we could say, are off-campus novels.
After a decade studying 19th-century literature at Oxford, Moss, who is Scottish-born and Manchester-raised, started writing fiction of her own. With the publication of each of her first five novels between 2009 and 2016, Moss offered new evidence that she was one of the most versatile and talented writers working today. Yet, although these novels quietly garnered admiration, she remained, somewhat incomprehensibly, underappreciated in the United Kingdom. In America, she was practically unknown.
That changed with Ghost Wall (2018), a riveting gut punch of a novel that received universally rave reviews in almost every major publication on both sides of the Atlantic. In it, Moss trained her attention on a teenage girl from a working-class family who, along with her abusive father and abused mother, joins a professor and his students in a forest in Northumberland to reenact life in Iron Age Britain as part of an “experimental archaeology” course. Ghost Wall is a coming-of-age, state-of-the-nation thriller that manages to both shine a spotlight on the kind of nationalistic nostalgia that delivered Brexit and sensitively attend to the psychological damage of domestic violence. It has the quality of parable, yet never loses sight of the fragile but fierce young girl at its center. It is an extraordinary novel. And it is only 130 pages.
By populating her novels with literary scholars, archaeologists, and historians, Moss is able to contemplate topics as wide-ranging as lost Viking settlements, theories of childhood development, neonatal tetanus, the Highland Clearances, the Nazi bombing of Coventry, Victorian philanthropy, and the living practices of the pre-Roman British. Yet, for all this, Moss avoids pretension. Partly because she shows these highly educated, highly intelligent men and women not delivering lectures or engaging in lofty intellectual debates but rather cooking, cleaning, and thinking about doing the laundry.
Moss doesn’t merely take academics out of their natural habitat, she also avoids the derision typical of many novels about the professoriate. Classic campus novels — think of Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution (1954), Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), or David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975) — are works of scathing satire. The men and, less often, women in these novels are petty and conniving; they are ladder climbers, consumed by departmental politics and embroiled in little wars. These novels lampoon the provincialism of the profession, but the butt of the joke is often the pretentious, pompous professor himself.
Moss, in contrast, treats academics with generosity. This is partly because she knows that the university no longer does. Early novels about the absurd behavior of narcissistic professors were written and set during a time of stability and burgeoning enrollments brought by the post–World War II economic expansion. The campus novel is a fundamentally comedic genre and in it, the biggest problems professors face are each other. Compelled by the different reality of tertiary education in the 21st century, Moss takes a more serious view. The academics in her fiction belong to the ill-managed and underfunded post–Great Recession university. Her off-campus novels may focus on everyday domestic struggles, but they are also scathing denunciations of the labor conditions in the university today.
Anna, the historian in Night Waking, struggles to keep up with the competing demands of motherhood and her fellowship. She not only endures snide comments about “all that maternity leave” (she took just eight weeks) but, more consequentially, must manage the challenges of breastfeeding and childcare with no institutional support. For a mother, the Senior Common Room is a hostile workplace. Yet compared to Adam in The Tidal Zone, Anna, with her prestigious fellowship that may even lead to a stable job, is one of the lucky ones. Adam is one of the growing tide of “the unemployed with PhDs.” His career prospects are bleak:
Fifteen years out from my PhD, with one book and some odds and ends of hourly-paid teaching on my CV, geographically tethered to the West Midlands by Emma’s job and the girls’ schools, I still keep an eye on the adverts for permanent academic jobs but it’s not going to happen. British higher education in general is running on casual labour, on people like me who ran themselves into debt doing PhDs and then found that the old-fashioned jobs with the permanent contracts and time for research were all but gone and also that they were too old and over-qualified for the things they might have done in their twenties. […] So we go cap-in-hands to heads of department every summer: please sir, give us some work?
It’s not subtle writing, but every sentence presents another truth about the many crises of the university. Like so many modern academics, both Anna and Adam exist in a condition of uncertainty: she doesn’t know if she can still keep up with work now that she is a mother; he is never sure when he will next secure a paying job. In her novels, Moss shows that the inescapable consequence of the precarity that defines life in the academy today is constant anxiety.
Moss is by no means the first novelist to write about precarious work in the university. There is a burgeoning subgenre of the campus novel that considers the lives of adjuncts and other underpaid and overworked administrative staff such as: James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale (2007) and Next (2010), Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day (2010), and Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask (2010). Like these, Moss’s novels take aim at institutions rather than individuals and thus upend the conservatism of traditional campus novels. However, Moss sets herself apart even from these novels that share her dismay at the disintegration of the university. Unlike the vast majority of campus novels, which treat research as self-indulgent, esoteric, or not at all, Moss’s off-campus novels insist on the value of humanistic inquiry. In Cold Earth, Night Waking, and The Tidal Zone, academic work is front and center. For Moss’s characters, and for Moss herself, research is a valuable, even noble pursuit. But this conviction doesn’t alleviate angst; instead it compounds it: for the likes of Anna and Adam not securing a permanent place in the university doesn’t just deprive them of income, it also means losing the chance to do what they love. It’s no wonder they are so anxious.
In many ways, Summerwater, Moss’s latest novel, feels like a departure. Unlike her earlier work, Summerwater doesn’t read like the product of conscientious historical research. Instead, it is set firmly in the present. In Night Waking and Ghost Wall as well as Bodies of Light and its sequel Signs for Lost Children (historical novels set in the Victorian period about the fictional life of one of England’s first female doctors), the injustices of the patriarchy are centerstage. In Summerwater, Moss’s steadfast feminism is part of the fabric of the novel, rather than its focal point. And Summerwater is not an off-campus novel. No one has a doctorate.
Yet, none of this is to say that ideas are absent. Indeed, they are everywhere. As in her previous novels, Moss inhabits dynamic minds that range widely — from the routine injustices of the patriarchy to police brutality in America to global political instability brought by dangerous demagogues to the difficulties of modern parenthood. Her gift of seamlessly mixing the mundane with the philosophical, evident in each of her novels, is on full display here. Everyday anxiety sits side-by-side with existential dread.
Summerwater unfolds from dawn to dusk on a single day in a park in the Trossachs. Heavy, ceaseless rain has trapped the holidaying families inside. Moss focuses the action, or inaction, on a restricted milieu — everyone is white and middle class — but Summerwater is nevertheless a polyphonic novel. In a dozen chapters, each narrated from the perspective of a different character, Moss inhabits the minds of young and old, English and Scottish, male and female, Remainers and Leavers to reveal deep divisions between the country’s malcontent citizens. They may share race and class, but these characters are united by little other than their frustrations. Although tensions are many and deep, nerves have been most immediately frayed by a night of sleeplessness. Flouting the unsaid rules of the staid British, a family of Eastern European immigrants partied the previous night away to loud music. Collective resentment settles on the outsiders. The state of the nation remains grim.
Uncannily, Summerwater reads like a lockdown novel. Stuck inside log cabins without service or wi-fi, the families are entirely cut off from the outside world. They are at once desperate for social connection and suffocated by their too-close contact with each other. Isolated without privacy, these lonely characters crave solitude. It is a paradox now intimately familiar to many of us. The claustrophobia is exacerbated by the shared conviction that they are being surveilled by the occupants of neighboring cabins. Hypocrisy is rampant: everyone is frustrated by prying eyes that they can only see because they are peering right back at them.
We often read books for escape, but we also sometimes read for the delight of familiarity. Moss’s novels provide both pleasures. Her precise writing and meticulous research transport us to unknown places: summer in Greenland, a mostly unpopulated island in the Hebrides, the streets of Victorian Manchester, an asylum in late 19th-century Cornwall, Japan during the Meiji Restoration. But the characters in Moss’s novels offer the thrill of recognition. This is particularly true of Summerwater.
With masterful free indirect style, Moss captures the way the mind of today’s bourgeois subjects ranges inadvertently from the personal to the political and back again within a matter of seconds. In a typical paragraph, questions about global capitalism interrupt thoughts about personal grooming. Moss deploys a precise realism which lays bare the anxieties and hypocrisies of the average middle-class citizen of the West. She is, as Penelope Lively described, an “intensely contemporary” novelist.
Moss’s characters don’t write emails or go online or post on social media, but their minds are formed and deformed by the internet. These men and women may not have spent years training in the university, but they are familiar with its language. They know that there are waves of feminism; they are proficient in the critique of power; they contemplate social justice and the patriarchy; they ponder the progress that came with equal opportunities legislation and consider the mechanics of evolution. The discourse of the academy has infiltrated their minds via the “chorus of agreement and outrage and amusement” that lives in their phones, but rather than offer clarity, this crowd of concepts has added angst.
Take Milly, for example, a young woman who has agreed to her fiancé’s request that they attempt to have simultaneous orgasms:
She lies on her back, opens her knees and cranes her head to see him, to see his face as he kneels between her thighs. He holds her gaze as he — oh, she says, ah, and she tugs a pillow — his pillow, she’s not stupid — under her hips and lifts her legs. It’s pleasant, she likes to see him too, eyes closed, concentrating. Pelvic floor, she thinks, clenches, and his eyes open and he closes them again as he smiles. OK, she thinks, now then, Zanzibar, we’re in a cabin with one of those wooden ceiling fans and a low bed with really crisp white linen sheets on a teak floor and there are French windows open onto a white beach with palm trees and bright water and he’s tied my wrists to the bed. Oh god but it’s colonial though, isn’t it, that one, she shouldn’t be objectifying the places that were red on the map. Gender-based domination is one thing, at least for women, in the privacy of your own head, but the whole Orientalism business is not on. Not that Zanzibar’s in the Orient, obviously, but she knows what she means. Objectification, though how you can have a fantasy without — still, it doesn’t have to have geopolitical implications, does it? Transpose it to the Mediterranean, then. Greece.
This is white liberal guilt at its parodic extreme. Milly can’t even have a sexual fantasy without worrying that her imagination is misogynistic, racist, colonialist. She tries to focus on climaxing, but her brain won’t stop free associating: the collapse of the Greek economy, the Mediterranean refugee crisis, American border camps, the Holocaust, the Middle Passage, the Khmer Rouge, environmental pollution, starving polar bears. (Milly gets there, eventually, but only because she manages to conjure up a tall, faceless man in a nice suit driving a fancy car up an Italian mountain.) It’s wickedly funny virtuosic writing, but it has a dark core. The couple’s divergent desires — he wants to achieve perfect intimacy; she wants a bacon sandwich — contain the seeds of future discontent. Milly doesn’t even share Josh’s aspiration for total connection. Actually, she finds it a little oppressive.
In the neighboring cabins, disparate desires have long ago cemented into mutual dislike. For the older couples, marriage is a necessary inconvenience, spouses are to be endured not cherished. In the words of one woman, “Getting married is like voting in that whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mild unsatisfactory four years down the line.” The smallest actions — making a cup of tea, peeing loudly, exercising, not exercising — provoke intense irritation. In Summerwater, proximity engenders not intimacy but hostility, impatience instead of tenderness, judgment rather than generosity. Husbands are disdainful of their wives, wives are dissatisfied with their husbands, teenagers are disgusted by their parents, parents are frustrated by ungrateful children, siblings are resentful of each other. No one is happy.
Even though they spend their days watching each other closely, the characters in this novel prove incapable of imagining the thoughts and feelings of anyone but themselves. In her exploration of troubled minds, Moss reveals a self-centeredness that renders sympathy impossible. Men and women that she has shown to have complex inner lives are reduced to a single phrase by those around them: “that old couple,” “the miserable one,” “the sad woman who never goes out.” The structure of the novel underscores the lack of connection: the central character in one chapter is peripheral in the next. Each character seems almost hermetically sealed from the rest. Strangers, no matter how physically close, are destined to remain unknown to each other.
In the face of outsiders who don’t conform to expectations, the solipsism of individuals coheres into collective suspicion. The lack of sympathy manifests as pernicious antipathy for the Eastern Europeans who, although it shouldn’t make a difference, seem likely to be legal, tax-paying residents. Widespread British ignorance becomes apparent when different characters variously identify the family as Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian, Polish. (The most reliable account suggests they are actually Ukrainian.) One of the few shortcomings of this novel is that Moss chooses not to narrate a chapter from their perspective.
In some chapters, prejudice plays out in euphemisms about the “right sort of people” and which families count as “nice.” Even the proud Scottish man who is openly contemptuous of the idiotic English who voted Leave resorts to making a distinction between Europeans who “know how behave” (French, German) and those that don’t. On other occasions, the bigotry is more explicit. Distressingly, the worst slurs are hurled by one young girl at another. The adults may not act on their grievances, but their racist remarks incite their children to acts of cruelty. In Ghost Wall, the xenophobia of contemporary Britain was embodied by a single working-class man. Summerwater acknowledges that the rot runs deep. As in all her fiction, Moss’s politics are close to the surface. The novel is a severe criticism of the nostalgia for a more homogeneous Britain. It is a lament for the condition of her country.
Moss nonetheless eschews the emotions of high tragedy — grief, fury, terror — in favor of more muted if still destructive feelings: frustration, bitterness, resent, cynicism, depression, and, above all, anxiety. The parents in this novel, like Anna in Night Waking and Adam in The Tidal Zone, are consumed by irrational fears about the well-being of their children. In their morbid imaginations, danger is everywhere. Moss turns up the volume on what is, for many with children, an inescapable way of thinking. It soon feels unbearably loud. Mothers imagine their children drowning in the loch, burning in a fire, having an asthma attack, being attacked by strangers.
Constant worry may define the state of parenthood, but in this novel, everyone else is tormented by anxious thoughts too, even the children. Everything, from the quotidian to the geopolitical is a cause for concern: accidents, personal finances, natural disaster, loose cords that could strangle babies, nuclear warfare, memory loss, injury, wrinkles, illness, burglars, murderers, ticks. Moss captures the uncontrollable spiral of anxiety — a headache becomes a possible brain tumor, locking a door might mean trapping your family inside in a potential fire, not locking it means leaving them vulnerable to murderous psychopaths lurking in the woods. Sometimes, the feeling loses specificity, and the unease becomes generalized: “Something bad is going to happen.” Very little happens in Summerwater, but the restless dynamism of the characters’ minds drives the novel forward.
Personal anxiety is underwritten by existential anxiety about irreversible climate change. For the younger generations, even the most mundane thoughts about the future are interrupted by the fear of planetary collapse. “If there’s still a planet to live on,” thinks a teenage boy after speculating about the university and work and romance that lies in his future. “If there is a future,” concludes a young man after imagining the children he wants to have. The refrain would seem didactic if it weren’t authentic. The rain itself, too heavy for usually temperate Scotland, is a sign that the feared change is already here.
We see the real costs of this torrential downpour in the brief interludes about the nonhuman inhabitants of the Trossachs — deer, foxes, ants, birds, trees, bats — that bookend each chapter. In these immersive passages, Moss shifts our attention from species to species in a manner that mimics the change in perspective of the longer chapters. As in her previous novels, she writes about nature with intuition and grace:
The light is as it was this morning. These midsummer days move too slowly to see, especially with the curtains of rain and cloud closed upon the woods and shore. In the oak tree, a peregrine sits, unseen. If it does not hunt soon it will die but if it flies now the weight of water will drag it to the ground where dusk will bring harm: foxes, humans and still nothing to eat. A small bird now, a squirrel, even a mouse would buy the peregrine more hours of life, more time for the rain to stop.
For humans who can safely shelter indoors, the unseasonable rain is inconvenient. For the animals in the woods, it threatens survival. Unlike the 19th-century writers she studied at Oxford, Moss never romanticizes nature. She turns repeatedly to language of starvation and death: “Under the hedges, in the hollows of tall trees, birds droop and wilt, grounded, waiting. Small creatures in their burrows nose the air and stay hungry.” In this novel, the animals, too, are in a state of high alert, constantly checking for imminent danger.
In one of these interludes, less than halfway through the novel, Moss includes a direct statement that confirms our building suspicions: “There will be deaths by morning.” (It contains echoes of an equally striking sentence in Ghost Wall: “There will be more stones, before the end.”) If anxiety is characterized as a feeling of unease about an imminent event with an uncertain outcome then Moss’s writing doesn’t just chronicle anxiety, it also produces it. We know early on that something bad is going to happen, but we don’t know what, and we don’t know who will be involved. Moss expertly places her readers in a state of suspended anticipation. In throwaway lines, she plants tiny details that raise the pulse. As a result, like the characters, we soon start to see danger everywhere. Will one of the young children fall into the loch? Will the obsessive runner with a heart murmur collapse and die? Will a cabin go up in flames? Is the teenage boy in a kayak going to capsize and down? Will the cruel English children hurt the little Eastern European girl? Or is she being neglected at home? Is the veteran camping on the grounds unstable and violent? Will racist resentment explode into violence? Moss keeps you guessing and primes you to hunt for clues. She builds suspense masterfully, and then maintains it until the tension feels almost unbearable. To read Summerwater is thus to enter a state of unease. Dread settles in your throat and chest.
In the final few pages of the novel, a nightmarish sequence told through the eyes of a child, the long-anticipated disaster finally arrives. The event, no less horrifying for being so heavily foreshadowed, shakes everyone out of their solipsism. But the characters’ impulsive acts of solidarity feel like too little, too late. Ultimately, Moss is anyway less interested in the catastrophic event than in the psychological effects of anticipating one. As in Cold Earth, a pandemic novel which trains its gaze on a small group of people who, isolated from the disease, can only speculate about its effects, Moss spends little time on disaster itself and instead explores the myriad ways it is imagined. In Summerwater, Sarah Moss establishes herself as our preeminent chronicler of anxiety.