Book Review of Sarah Moss's Summerwater
Sarah Moss’s Summerwater describes the holiday experiences of a series of families who are staying in log cabins, near a loch, in a remote part of Scotland. The chapters are, if you like, snapshots, or snippets, of the different holiday makers’ lives.
Some of the families own their cabins and others rent them. There is a feeling that nothing is quite what it seems and the lives of everyone are falling apart. Everyone is vaguely watching everyone else and no one is entirely sympathetic to one another. At the resort it is noted that a new family, interlopers, people who come and go making noise, have arrived. The equilibrium is disturbed and the reader is led on a heady path to where they know not. This is cleverly portrayed by the children on the swing, who leave a child struggling because she doesn’t look or sound right and doesn’t wear the right clothes.
Moss explores characters of all ages and touches many issues. We see the fear of dementia in the eyes of the elderly lady, alongside years of harboured resentments within the marriage. We observe the middle-aged woman running for her life, such is her seeming desire to escape it! We see the self-conscious teenager take risks with his safety, venturing too far into the loch in storrmy conditions. Disappointment pervades the characters’ emotions.
The relentless use of pathetic fallacy provides no let-up. It is perhaps ironic that I actually found one of the only hopeful moments presented via the dissatisfied mother of young children, who, when given an hour to herself, could think of no way to fill it, other than returning to the children who were paddling in puddles on the beach – the children, her source of discontent, were still loved.
In between each snap shot of life are short descriptions of nature and change there is an impending sense of doom. Within them is a lot to say about the balance between nature and people. These pages need reading properly.
There are parts of Summerwater that everyone will relate to. It is a book that invites introspection and reflection. It is a short book, but with a lot to say about the purpose or futility of existence and the flawed nature of people. Subtle, but with the appearance of deceptive simplicity, Sarah Moss’s Summerwater needs reading carefully.
Book Discussion Questions on Sarah Moss's Summerwater
- Different narrative voices are created for different characters in Summerwater. Which character would you like to learn more about and why?
- Is there any significance in the fact that on the cover the book, the word Summerwater goes over two lines, whereas inside the book it is written as one word? Why are the chapter headings in lower case? Discuss.
- In Summerwater there is quite a lot of humour amongst the tragedy. Discuss. Which parts of the text did you find both amusing and sad?
- Would the outcome of the story have been the same if the rain had stopped? Discuss.
- Hilary Mantel says that Summerwater is “utterly of the moment.” What does she mean?
- Explore Alex’s feelings towards his parents? How do you react to this through the different lenses of someone both his age and older?
- Throughout the text there is a sense of an all-knowing voyeur lurking in the background. Discuss this statement. Do you agree with it? How is the sense of being watched presented?
- Which of the stories in Summerwater did you find most disturbing and why?
- How is fear presented in the different stories?
- What attitudes towards change did you observe in the stories?
Book Discussion Questions on Summerwater (if you haven't read the book!)
- Summerwater is set in a faded resort of worn holiday cabins where it constantly rains. What experiences do you have of holidays that fail to live up to expectations?
- In one of the chapters, a young woman called Milly asks whether it is ok for a feminist to have a rape fantasy.? She is vaguely troubled by the idea. What reply would you give her?
- In one of the chapters a young mum can’t think of anything to do except clean the taps when she is given an hours freedom from her children. Can you relate to this?
- There is an undercurrent of unspoken racism and resentment against the outsider in the novel. What experiences do you have of that in life?
- The book is bleak and lacking in hope for the future. Discuss your own feelings, beliefs and attitdues about the world we are leaving for the next generation?
- The book is separated into chapters, each giving a snapshot of how the different characters are feeling. The characters lives are both separate to one another but strangely intertwined. Think about the neigbourhood in which you live? To what extent do you and your neighbours have a separate and also shared existence?
Personal Response to Sarah Moss's Summerwater
I was interested to see how great the reviews were for this book. I feel I missed a trick when I was reading it. Overall, I found Summerwater a bit creepy. I bet it isn’t a book that Richard Holloway would enjoy at all, for example! It is the bleakest book I’ve read in a long time! I don’t mind a good sprinkling of despair as a rule, but this perhaps was a bit close to the bone!
Sarah Moss did a wonderful job of creating tension. She draws character extremely well, but I didn’t put all the stories together adequately and consequently was left a bit befuddled by the ending. I also didn’t pay sufficient attention to the little in-between chapters, yet I could recognize how they were important. Any lack of engagement about the text is definitely more linked to my state of mind, than to what is a well-written dramatic and profound book. It was quite sinister though and the final page or so completely disturbing. I think I probably admired, rather than loved, Sarah Moss’s Summerwater.