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Summerwater Reviews

Summerwater by Sarah Moss


Sarah Moss

4.20 out of 5

10 reviews

Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: 20 Aug 2020
ISBN: 9781529035438

The devastating new novel from Sarah Moss, author of Women's Prize longlisted Ghost Wall.

  • The BooksellerBook of the Month
5 stars out of 5
Alice O'Keeffe
8 May 2020

"...by the time I reached the end of the novel I could hardly breathe. So, so good."

I can vividly remember reading Sarah Moss's gripping 2009 debut, Cold Earth, and since then she has gone from strength to strength. Her previous novel Ghost Wall had the critics raving and this, her first for Picador, should generate the same excitement.Summerwater is set in a rainy Scottish campsite over the course of a single day and night at the height of summer. The inhabitants of six tatty cabins, cooped up with their families, are mostly stuck inside owing to the bad weather, with not much to do except watch the other residents. As we move around the cabins, and listen in to characters ranging from young children to teenagers, to middle-aged parents and elderly retirees, it becomes clear that there are deep divisions; by age, or class, or along political lines (this is very much a post-Brexit novel). One family-a mother and her daughter-wearing the wrong clothes, behaving the "wrong" way, do not fit in. There is a sense of unease from the beginning of the novel, that builds -almost imperceptibly-to a deafening thrum of dread, and by the time I reached the end of the novel I could hardly breathe. So, so good.


4 stars out of 5
Dwight Garner
11 Jan 2021

"Iris Murdoch’s “A Severed Head” is a great fog novel. “Summerwater” is pretty close to a great rain novel."

As always in Moss’s work, there is a strong sense of the natural world. There are riddles of existence she’s shaking down. As a character puts it in “Ghost Wall,” “ancient knowledge runs somehow in our blood.” As always in Moss’s work, too, there is an ominous quality, slow uncanny beats from an extra subwoofer or two, mighty but muffled...

One senses Moss stumbling toward an ending rather than running confidently downhill toward one. This is comment more than complaint. Endings don’t matter to me quite as much as they do to many. If I’ve been allowed to ride shotgun on a magnificent cross-country drive and the car breaks down in Reno? Well, sorry to miss you, Los Angeles, but I’ve got my memories. This metaphor, alas, does not work so well with travel by ship or plane. Iris Murdoch’s “A Severed Head” is a great fog novel. “Summerwater” is pretty close to a great rain novel. “The Scottish sky,” Moss writes, “is better at obscenity than any human voice.”

3 stars out of 5
10 Sep 2020

"some scenes are especially memorable for their poignancy and pathos"

The result is baggier, more amorphous and slightly less dazzling than some of Moss’s previous work – particularly Ghost Wall – but it nonetheless displays her agility and range. Her ability to switch so smoothly between such different characters is remarkable, while some scenes are especially memorable for their poignancy and pathos, including the chapter in which a boy is battered by the elements when out on the loch in a canoe, and the episode of a woman with early-stage dementia.

5 stars out of 5
Melissa Harrison
26 Aug 2020

"Moss’s ability to conjure up the fleeting and sometimes agonised tenderness of family life is unmatched"

A great part of a novelist’s skill lies in the breadth of their sympathies and their ability to enter into the lives of people unlike themselves. Moss does this so naturally and comprehensively that at times her simple, pellucid prose and perfectly judged free indirect speech feel almost like documentary or nonfiction – there is an artfulness to her writing so accomplished as to conceal itself. In Summerwater, as in Ghost Wall, Moss’s politics are crystal clear; but it’s the messy complexities and frailties we all harbour about which she has the most to say.

4 stars out of 5
22 Aug 2020

"Building up a sense of dread in a novel is a subtle art, and Sarah Moss is an absolute master of it"

Summerwater has been described as a portrait of “the many conflicting voices of Britain in microcosm” and it certainly feels like an accurate reflection of our confused, scared, angsty present. Perhaps Moss’s point, though, is that we’re all so busy worrying about the things we can’t influence we’ve lost sight of the things we can.

3 stars out of 5
22 Aug 2020

"as a series of short sketches, Summerwater is successful"

If all this sounds rather dour, that’s because it is. But there’s more to this novel than that. Its range is as varied as its cast of characters. We meet a neurotic woman obsessed with running, a loved-up couple who never draw their curtains before lunch, and children whose games pantomime the rhetoric of Brexit. There are moments of tenderness between fathers and daughters, and bitterness between wives and husbands. There is even some observational comedy. Anyone who’s struggled to get into a sports bra or who’s drunk orange juice too soon after yoghurt will find something to relate to.

4 stars out of 5
Sarah Ditum
21 Aug 2020

"Moss does a strong line in scathingly funny here"

What Summerwater does have plenty of is foreboding as Moss heaps up the pointers to something terrible with the cruel skill of a horror technician. By the midpoint, reading feels as stressful and claustrophobic as any wet-weather getaway, and just as impossible to get out of before the appalling end. Ghost Wall, with its fixation on boundaries and inheritance, felt like an opaquely post-Brexit novel. Summerwater is more obviously so (several characters reflect either bitterly or pityingly on the presence of the eastern Europeans in the park, and there’s one genuinely shocking scene of xenophobia), and more bleakly so.

4 stars out of 5
Blake Morrison
16 Aug 2020

"There’s plenty of humour"

The set-up of Summerwater looks the same as that of Cold Earth and Ghost Wall – a group of individuals who don’t know each other thrown together in an unfamiliar environment – but this time the characters are kept in their own bubbles; what builds pressure is their failure to interact. There’s plenty of humour as well, including the basic premise: ‘middle-class white people coming here to have less privacy, comfort and convenience than they do at home’. But then night falls and the Event occurs and it’s not funny at all.

4 stars out of 5
John Boyne
14 Aug 2020

"Sarah Moss provides excellent insight into her characters’ inner lives"

Moss’s insight into her characters’ inner lives is among the many strengths of Summerwater. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, the holiday makers simply stare at each other, indulging their own sense of superiority. There’s a very British sense of people living in close community who find it impossible to converse because they haven’t been formally introduced, but it is this separation that highlights how fascinated we are as a species by each other, observing, inventing stories and, in moments of crisis, joining forces to save lives.

4 stars out of 5
Peter Kemp
9 Aug 2020

"This story of a turbulent Scottish holiday is suffused with fascination"

It sounds a cheerless scenario, but Moss rapidly suffuses it with fascination. Family life — its strains and loyalties, pressures and pleasures — always enthrals her. Parenting and partnerships are a continuing preoccupation. Here, 12 short sections open up different points of view on to the cabin park and the people penned in it. The age span is wide: from a young child to several moody teenagers, a couple soon to be married, middle-aged parents and an elderly retired doctor and his wife.