17th October 2020
Review by Heather Craddock
This interview with author Sarah Moss as part of Durham Book Festival expertly captures the ominous atmosphere of her new novel Summerwater, without hinting too strongly at what comes of this unease. Discussing the creative restraint she placed on herself while writing this novel of isolation set on a remote Scottish holiday park over the course of one day, Moss notes that her writing process was playful, a form of linear ‘narrative relay race’ as characters encounter each other and pass on the baton of the tale.
Summarising the interaction between the characters as a case of similar people obsessing over small differences that consequently become larger, Moss points towards the novel’s relevance to Brexit, as well as Scottish-English relations and gender expectations. Moss considers her detail-driven writing which pays attention to the ordinary to be a ‘political decision’, as only the extraordinarily privileged live life above this level.
Noting that she did not ‘set out to write a state of the nation novel’, Moss nonetheless engages with Summerwater’s prescient relevance to the challenges of lockdown. She acknowledges that, while she found the politics of lockdown frightening, her existing awareness of how increasing human destruction of the natural world raises the likelihood of zoonotic viruses becoming widespread meant she was unsurprised by the pandemic itself.
The many curious contradictions of this novel are brought out, from the focus on family life alongside isolation, to the sense of escaping into a pleasant wilderness being accompanied by an unsettling awareness of unusual, extreme weather. Parenting, and particularly the judgement which surrounds motherhood, is a theme which runs throughout the novel. Discussing her own experiences, Moss suggests that she was able to balance academic roles, writing, reading and parenting because each was important to her and ‘time is the one resource that is equally distributed’.
Special attention is given to the landscape of the novel. The debate about what Moss terms her ‘slightly strange or estranged’ landscape, so consistently present as to be almost a character in the novel, is a key point of interest. The novel is built around a series of vignettes interspersed with pages centring on non-human creatures living within the wild, wet Scottish landscape. While stating that she will continue to incorporate climate issues into her work, as it would be unrealistic not to and she is interested in documenting such issues ‘on the periphery’ of our thoughts, Moss clarifies that ‘I don’t think writing can be climate change activism, because the scale of the change required is larger than individual readers.’ In light of the place this novel clearly has in normalising and encouraging conversations about the rising sense of unease relating to climate change, Moss’s firm conviction that ‘literature is not going to save us from climate change’ as only ‘government action’ will bring about the necessary change, is intriguing.
Watch the event here until November 1st.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.