The first great novel of the staycation era
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CHARLIE CONNELLY on an atmospheric new book – written before the pandemic – which perfectly captures the current national mood.
This is, we’re told, the year of the staycation. Thanks to the coronavirus it’s been a word in common usage this year as those usually in a position to holiday abroad have their wings clipped and
look within our borders for a change of scene.
‘Staycation’ is a horrible word. I mean really, startlingly dreadful. The thing it purports to describe isn’t the issue, there are terrific places to visit on these islands, but the ‘staycation’ doesn’t come close to pulling off that sentiment.
It’s a word the language categorically does not need but the kind of word that will have caused much whooping and high-fiving in the brightly lit meeting room where it was conceived by marketing wonks, a term infused with about as much joy as the dried brown dribble on the outside of the coffee pot on the table in front of them.
Neither a clever compound construction nor a proper pun, staycation is a word that sounds as if it should be appealing and fun but is the absolute opposite. Its very essence is in restriction. You’re not going, you’re staying. But hey! That’s great too, right? A horrible word for horrible times, ‘staycation’ implies unfulfilment at best, outright misery at worst. It implies putting a brave face on things. It implies Carry On Camping. It implies rain.
There is a great deal of rain in Sarah Moss’ new novel Summerwater, which is set on the longest day of the year at a compound of log cabins beside a loch in the Trossachs whose occupants are on – brace yourself – staycations.
This rain is so persistent it appears to be fuelled by some kind of meteorological grudge, confining to their chalets the couples and families who have, by the quirks of their schedules, been thrown together in this remote spot at the end of a 10-mile single-track road.
The rain does not stop. It gets everywhere, seeping behind waterproofs and inside wellingtons, worsening the damp patches in cabins quite sophisticated when they were built in the 1980s but now showing their age.
In recent years Moss has specialised in writing about groups of people placed in a remote location where underlying frustrations combine with proximity to stoke almost unbearable tension. Her previous novel Ghost Wall, published in 2018, was a brilliant excoriation of a particularly nasty brand of English nationalism, set on an archaeology field trip to an Iron Age site in the north-east of England at the end of the last century. Ghost Wall was a subtle probing of the kind of simmering prejudice dressed up as ‘genuine concerns’ that helped fuel the Brexit vote, but Summerwater benefits from the time that has passed since then, encompassing a wider group of characters to tackle a wider set of issues. It almost makes you pine for a more innocent time when Brexit was our only major concern. Almost.
Brexit is always lurking in Summerwater like a sea serpent in the loch occasionally raising its head above the water. “How could the English be so stupid,” one character asks himself, “how could they could not see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city centre regeneration of the last 30 years?” But this is so much more than a Brexit novel and few works of fiction published this year will capture the essence of Britain today as well as Moss does in Summerwater.
In some ways the author appears to have set herself a difficult task. With nothing to do and nowhere to go – there’s not even a phone signal at the cabins – where can she take these characters? Having restricted herself to such a confined location, where can she take the plot? Fortunately, Moss has an extraordinary gift for creating fully-formed, authentic people that could have stepped from real-life onto the page, and here she has us eavesdrop on their internal monologues.
We open with Justine waking in a cabin before the alarm, in those particular hours before dawn when every trouble seems a hundred times worse and you spiral into a descending swirl of anxiety. Moss draws us into the intimacy of Justine’s thoughts, which flit easily between rational and irrational as all ours do, while she prepares to go for a run before anyone else is up.
There’s minor guilt over the sweatshop origins of her running vest, then examining a murderer’s likely escape route should her family be massacred while she’s out running. Married with two young children, Justine lives for these opportunities to have something for herself and she’s an obsessive runner who is “in as good a shape as any, visible abs in her forties after two kids”.
We meet David, a retired doctor who with his wife Mary, now displaying the early signs of dementia, bought one of the cabins off the page before they were built. He misses the old neighbours and pines for the days when they knew everyone staying on the site, when the cabin was a status symbol rather than a shabby shack in the middle of nowhere that they’re struggling to sell.
There’s Milly, a young woman whose fiancé Josh is obsessed with them achieving simultaneous orgasm, but for all his best efforts she finds herself fantasising distractedly about Don Draper from Mad Men as Josh tries his best, asking her what she wants. “A cup of tea and a bacon bap, she thinks, would be excellent, but she says kiss me and reaches up to hold the headboard behind her head, which turns out to be slightly sticky.”
There are a dozen or so of these characters to whose innermost thoughts we become party, each of them recognisable, each of them brilliantly drawn, from Lola, the surly young daughter of an over-protective mother who combines a weltschmerz that would be precocious in someone thrice her age with a streak of vicious cruelty, to Alex, a 16-year-old boy brimming with the half-formed certainties of adolescence, angry at his parents, angry at this enforced holiday and angry at a world into which he is struggling to fit.
Different people from different backgrounds but with more in common than first appears. All of them are frustrated by life and eaten up to varying extents by what might have been and what might not be. There’s a loneliness in each of them born out of a sense of being thwarted by life. If the cabins are at the end of a long road then so are the characters, all of whom ponder the roads not taken.
Milly is resigned to a forthcoming marriage that she doesn’t seem entirely convinced by but settles for Josh, thinking about the wedding list while wanting to “get away from the huddle of chalets, from the eyes at every window and this view of the loch curtained by wet leaves”.
They all think of faraway places: Milly conjures Zanzibar into a sexual fantasy, Justine ponders the cities of Europe she’s never seen and probably never will, Alex of working in Australia or Canada and Claire, who gave up a career to have children, reminiscing about the days when her time was her own and she could go online to look up “places she wasn’t going to visit”.
This claustrophobia builds an almost unbearable tension, a sense of boundaries if not actually closing in then rigid enough to stifle, physically within the cabins and the weather reducing visibility, and the mental isolation of loneliness.
These are people who for various reasons don’t feel seen, in their lives or in their relationships, so it’s unsurprising they don’t really see each other during this horrendous holiday. Despite their proximity the households don’t mix. The one unifying aspect of their situation is how they all tut and moan about the Ukrainians in one cabin who played loud music until late the previous night.
This brings out plenty of casual racism, not least the references to the outsiders as variously Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles, but the most shocking example comes from what should be an unlikely source in an act of cruelty involving a rope swing.
We become so immersed in the characters and their innermost thoughts that when the tension finally breaks in dramatic style it comes as a total shock, as if Moss has snuck up behind us with a length of lead piping. It’s a perfectly timed climax to a novel that’s perfectly paced.
The writing is beautiful too. When we move between narrators it’s via glimpses of the surroundings, no more than a single page, usually a single paragraph, from the point of view of an owl, say, or a deer, always fearful of predators or speeding cars as they cross the road. These brief interludes help stoke the tension and sense that darkness is coming. Of the boats on the loch Moss writes of the tragedies of the past, “the small boats of boys in every century who never came home, and the water holds the hand stitches of their clothes and the cow-ghosts of their shoes and the amulets that did not help when they were needed”. Elsewhere, “under the hedges, in the hollows of small trees, birds droop and wilt, grounded, waiting. Small creatures in their burrows nose the air and stay hungry. There will be deaths by morning”.
A staycation novel it might be but Summerwater was written before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s testament to Moss’s sensitive ear for modern Britain that this novel slots perfectly into the national mood: it’s a Covid novel without Covid and a Brexit novel that doesn’t once use the word. The characters who inhabit Summerwater live in the context of Brexit, in its fallout, with its gloomy uncertainty and existential anguish thrumming through the minutiae of relationships, careers and just trying to make do.
And drenching it all is the rain. The constant rain that put me in mind of James Harpur’s poem Roscommon Rain. “When the rain stopped the rain began,” it begins and describes rain “coming in from somewhere else beyond the world’s rim, erasing gradually the misconception that the world had ever not been rain and rain would cease before the end of time”.
- Summerwater by Sarah Moss is published by Picador, price £14.99
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