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Under the Still Skies

Rohan Maitzen

Summerwater, by Sarah Moss, Picador, 208 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1529035452

“You don’t live your whole life in Scotland to be scared of the rain,” thinks a character in Sarah Moss’s grimly ingenious new novel Summerwater ‑ “but this weather is odd, too much.” The incessant rain is literally dampening for the holiday plans of the cluster of visitors who have come to a remote Scottish cabin park seeking a break from their mundane realities. As the novel’s single day slowly passes, the rain also becomes a metaphor for something equally pervasive, if less tangible: the undercurrent of resentment that eventually binds this contingent community together and turns them against those they perceive as outsiders. The small population of Summerwater thus reveals itself as representative of the larger nation of which it is a sodden subset, finding scapegoats to blame for its own constricting discontent.

In this way Summerwater is a fitting sequel to Moss’s previous novel, Ghost Wall, which even more overtly highlighted the destructive potential of xenophobia. While Ghost Wall embodied the threat in a specific character, Summerwater diffuses it and, for much of the novel, submerges it, but this only makes the consequences more horrific because they arise, not from deliberate malice ‑ which at least can be confronted ‑ but from a collective inability to do better. The insidious effects of the characters’ isolation are hardly visible, even to us, until we are shocked by realising how short the distance actually is between a failure of hospitality and a failure of humanity.

The novel’s title is a clue to the crisis to come. “She can still do poetry,” reflects Mary, one of the visitors, wandering back through the memories encroaching senility has not yet chased away:

Deep asleep, deep asleep, Deep asleep it lies, The still lake of Summerwater Under the still skies … No, Semmerwater, not summerwater, took her ages to remember to say it right …and here she is getting it wrong again sixty years later. Or sixty-five. Once there stood by Semmerwater …  And a lost city in Summerwater — Semmerwater — deep asleep till Doom.

In the poem she’s remembering, a city is cursed, drowned, for turning away a beggar unfed. Cause and effect is not as direct in Summerwater, but its chapters, which circle around and cross paths with each other much as the campers do, bring us closer and closer to a similar moment of reckoning. “She sometimes thinks everyone on the park is spending their entire holidays watching each other,” thinks Claire, a mother of two trying to enjoy her family holiday even though somehow she has just as much cleaning and cooking to do as ever. Like most of the neighbours she sees but does not know, Claire is particularly tired on this weary grey day: “all of them kept awake half the night by the Romanians next door and their loud music”. “Those selfish fuckers with their loud music,” thinks Justine as she heads out on her morning run in spite of the downpour, “who must have known they were ruining the sleep and hence the next day for all the little kids and their parents and the old folk and all.”

Are they Romanian? Perhaps they are Russian, or Ukrainian, or Polish: everybody makes their own assumption. “Where are you from,” demands young Lola when she and her brother Jack encounter little Violetta as they play by the lake. “Glasgow, says the girl, aren’t you?” but Lola isn’t satisfied:

So where are you really from, Violetta Shitchenko? Somewhere people scream and yell like baboons all night and keep everyone awake with their so-called music? Somewhere people don’t know how to behave? … You’re supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not get the message?

Lola’s hateful words expose the subtext of the other campers’ complaints: the real disruption is not the noise but the outsiders who, like their nightly festivities, grate on the others’ nerves. They are “the only people having any fun between Glasgow and fucking Iceland” grumbles teenaged Becky, who alone has tried to strike up a friendly conversation with one of them. They know how they are seen: “the first thing she said was she’s been here twenty years and pays her taxes”.

Of course, the desire to sleep at night ‑ especially if one has small children ‑ is not unreasonable. What Moss’s unfolding drama shows, however, is how often the seemingly innocuous demand for common courtesy, for civility, is actually a coded demand for conformity, against which any dissent registers as hostility, rather than simply and inoffensively as difference. Everyone there, after all, is just trying to have a good time. It’s just that for some, this means policing boundaries, closing the borders against others whose language, habits, or music are unfamiliar and thus unacceptable.

Still, there might have been no tragedy if it weren’t for other factors evident among the vacationing families even in their separate quarters. In particular, in their own ways they are all under stress from gendered expectations that make their individual happiness fragile or elusive. Wives and mothers, loving though they are, struggle to maintain their own identities under the pressure of their roles as sacrificial caregivers: Claire, for instance, who doesn’t really want to divorce her husband, Jon, but still sometimes fantasises about it because if they split custody of their children, she would only have to “keep it up for no more than five days in a row”; or Justine, also married with two children, who knows that she risks her health by running as long and hard as she does but keeps it up because it lets her be herself, by herself. Husbands, brothers, and lovers fret or flail to live up to narrow standards of masculinity: Justine’s husband, Steve, won’t sit down to urinate “because in his head the masculinity police are watching”; Mary’s husband, Dave, now retired, regrets now knowing his children better because of the long hours he worked when they were young, but “it was what a man was supposed to do”.

This sense that as a man you need to do something eventually sends Steve out on a mission to solve the noise problem. “He’s not being racist,” Steve thinks; “he’d feel just the same about a bunch of lads from Stockport.” Still, though he says “live and let live” is his principle, and the Bulgarians (“or whatever”) can “stay up all night and deafen themselves if they want to”, he thinks “they should do it somewhere else, such as back where they came from.” Surveying the “fucking Romanians” from his window, Steve grows angrier and angrier, especially as more of them arrive. “Fucking hell,” he thinks; “we’re going to need a whole bloody army now.” In the end, though, it just takes three: Steve, Lola’s dad, Ian, and Lola herself, to precipitate the novel’s climactic tragedy.

The brevity of Summerwater is deceptive. Moss excels at creating density, each element contributing so carefully to the overall effect that realism and allegory merge. The novel has the tense atmosphere of a thriller and clues to its eventual crisis are deftly deployed throughout, but its multiple layers mean that the most important revelations are less about what ultimately happens then about how the novel asks us to interpret it. How can we live together in a world being reshaped by the weather? What expectations should we bring to communities no longer defined by the artificial borders of nationalism? What really makes a good neighbour? And what if, when the music stops, it turns out that you miss it, that something is lost that you might not be able to get back? “It will be weird when it finishes,” thinks little Jack, watching and worrying as his dad and Lola go to “sort it”, and it is: “he was right, Jack, you notice, when it stops.”

1/9/2020

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has published essays and reviews in venues including the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Tin House; she blogs at Novel Readings.

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