Sarah Moss on Summerwater and the State of the Nation

Posted on 1st July 2021 by Mark Skinner

Set on a Scottish holiday park during a heavy downpour, Summerwater, the latest novel from the exceptionally talented Sarah Moss, confronts the prejudice, mutual suspicion and fleeting moments of kindness at the heart of modern British society. In this exclusive piece, Sarah reflects on both the current pandemic and the wider political flashpoints of recent years, and their connection to Summerwater.

Please Note: This piece was originally written for Summerwater's hardback release between the first and second lockdowns.    

Summerwater was finished long before Covid-19 came along. In the early days of the pandemic, people asked me if I was worried about publishing a pre-Covid novel in the days of the pandemic. Wouldn’t it seem weird to readers, they said, if my characters were shaking hands or going to the pub or even not constantly thinking and talking about epidemiology and lockdown? Do you have to rewrite it so nobody hugs or takes a train? I am not worried and not rewriting, partly because plague, famine and war ravage humanity frequently and literature goes on through them all, and partly because I think the relationship between disease and story-telling applies as much to this pandemic as any other sickness. I didn’t know about Covid when I wrote Summerwater, but I knew some of its stories because they were there first.

Illnesses are narratives as well as physical changes. We go to the doctor because our story as well as our body has gone wrong: if I have a headache after a long run on a hot day, I will drink a lot of water and stay inside for a while rather than seek medical attention. The same headache waking me in the middle of the night would be more alarming. If I turn dizzy after riding a rollercoaster, I will worry less than I would if the same dizziness struck me while sitting at my desk. The story of the symptom as well as the symptom itself requires care.

It’s obvious that epidemics are also both scientific and narrative entities. When syphilis became endemic in parts of Tahiti after the visits of British and French naval ships, the French called it ‘la maladie anglaise’ and the English, ‘the French disease.’ There was no scientific connection between Spain and the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918. More recent pandemic nicknames suggest our (correct) fear of close encounters with the animals we farm and eat, ‘avian flu’ and ‘swine flu.’ Scientists succeeded in preventing the general public giving the current problem a similarly political name, but our experience of it is still political, by which we mean narrative, as much as biological. In Ireland, where I live now, the outbreaks are worst where there are poor working conditions and in ‘direct provision centres’ where people seeking asylum, including children, are compelled by the state to live in overcrowded and sometimes insanitary circumstances. But the popular story is about irresponsible incomers, usually Americans, coming to this country and spreading their foreign germs among people who know how to behave. In England we developed a story about ‘heroic’ key workers while denying many of them fair pay and safe working conditions. In every country, people blame foreigners, outsiders. The old blame the young, country-dwellers blame city-dwellers, the rich blame the poor though ski-ing holidays were an early vector. The stories predate the disease.

My novel is set on a Scottish holiday park on one very wet summer day. The residents observe each other through the rain and their French windows, making judgements about comings and goings, about clothes, parenting, national identity, physical ability and body size. Although they have a great deal in common – they’re all more or less middle class, white, British, have all chosen the same isolated and beautiful place for their holiday – they are deeply divided by politics, generation and national identity. They imagine each other’s views based on observations of dress, timekeeping and behaviour, and there is almost no conversation between households. It’s not a(nother) Brexit novel, but it is a novel about being in a place small enough to give everyone a common interest but finding that people are too full of suspicion and judgement to speak across divides. Where there is kindness and good intention, they go largely unspoken and unacted because the fear of interference is greater than the fear of negligence. Summerwater’s central question is whether this group of apparently similar but in fact divided and distrustful people is capable of responding like a community, to pool resources and save others, in an emergency. Meanwhile, the real emergency, which is climate change, simmers in the background.

When I wrote the book, I invented the final crisis but the fractured society was all around me, in the headlines I read and in the conversations I had and the conversations I avoided having. And then, in March and April and May, as we went to press, the crisis happened. I wouldn’t change a word of it.


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