Saturday, March 06, 2021

Summerwater - Sarah Moss


Sarah Moss’s Summerwater is one of those novels that has drawn praise from professional critics on both the U.S. and the U.K. All that I knew about it going in was that it was short (201 numbered pages) and that it was supposed to have some kind of tragic/impactful/heartbreaking ending that kind of sneaks up on the reader. I can verify that the page-count is accurate, but the ending is more like getting blindsided by a freight train than having something surprise you by slowly sneaking up on you. 


And that makes this a tricky novel to review. One slip and the freight train is derailed before it even reaches the neighborhood.


Summerwater is the story of a group of strangers who happen to be staying in a Scottish holiday camp during the same week, a week during which it seems mostly to be raining so often that the various families are largely confined to their cabins where they surreptitiously spy on each other through slatted windows. With one exception, everyone pretty much seems to be from either Scotland or England. The outsiders are from Eastern Europe - the others think - and depending on whom you ask that family is characterized as Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, or Romanian. Everyone is so certain that they know the family’s origin that no one makes an effort to verify any of the assumptions. They don’t speak to the foreigners at all, but for that matter, they barely speak to each other either.


In what could pass for a collection of interconnected short stories as much as anything else, Moss introduces the families to the readers one at a time. Each “story,” of course has the same setting and sometimes the characters do have the kind of interaction that requires a little more from them than staring at, and wondering about, each other. The characters run the gamut from the elderly to toddlers, and their lives from contentment to despair. Some of what is going on behind closed doors is laugh-out-loud funny, and some of it will bring a tear to your eye. Moss truly is a good writer, and the structure works well. For the most part, her adult characters are witty and observant, if more than a little standoffish, such as one wife who is  desperate for a little alone-time because all the rain. She thinks:


“…setting aside the violent and deranged, getting married is like voting in that whatever you choose the outcome will be at best mildly unsatisfactory four years down the line.”


My favorite chapter of them all is “Zanzibar,” a snippet during which Moss places the reader inside the minds of Josh and Millie, who are on the verge of marriage, during the sex act itself. The contrast between what each is thinking, as opposed to what each believes the other must be thinking and experiencing is hysterical at times. Let’s just say it is a very good thing that neither of them is a mindreader.


But that freight train is still out there somewhere.


Bottom Line: Summerwater is as enjoyable as it is memorable, but for entirely different reasons. However, the ending left me a bit confused because of something that is only hinted at about one of the characters. I’m still not sure exactly why what happens at the end actually happens; perhaps, that’s what Moss was going for, perhaps not. And, too, maybe I just missed something. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. 


Sarah Moss

I do not particularly enjoy endings that leave me guessing even after the last page has been turned, so I would love to hear what others think. A spoiler-alert warning has been added to make such a discussion, I hope, acceptable. 


Comments may include spoilers, especially as to the novel’s ending.

14 comments:

  1. Sam, I just picked this up from the library but, I have (3-4) books that need to be read first. Your review leaves me very curious.

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  2. Diane, I have mixed feelings about this one. I suppose I would rate it as a 3 out of 5 kind of book. On the one hand, I enjoyed the chapters leading up to the climax a lot; on the other, I found the dramatic ending to be more than a bit frustrating.

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  3. I'm really curious about this one now, but I'm also not a fan of when the ending of a book leaves me feeling frustrated and confused, so I'm not sure I want to read this one, or not.

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    1. I'm hoping that someone can show me that I missed the answer to my frustration and that it was all my fault. Otherwise, I don't think she played entirely fairly with her readers.

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    2. I think your first assumption is correct, this book has a lot of recurring themes but the final thread is a little out of the blue. I think mental illness plays a big role in this book but not the way we expected.

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    3. Thanks for that. I'm happy to hear that I may not be totally off base - or too harsh - in thinking that the final twist came like a bolt of lightning on a clear day.

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    4. In my mind, Violetta and her mother most probably die. The fire could be caused by whatever Lola has in her pocket. Is this in line with what you took out of the book?

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    5. That's pretty much the conclusion I came to. I suppose it's only unclear because the buildup, at least in my opinion, wasn't very strongly pointing that way before the ending was sprung on us.

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  4. I've never read Moss... you have certainly piqued my curiosity!

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    1. And that's exactly why I read this one in the first place, JoAnn. The papers got me curious to see what the commotion was all about...still not entirely sure.

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  5. I just finished a book that left me wondering, too. Not as much as the one you just read but enough to make me feel dissatisfied..

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    1. When that happens to me, my first inclination always is too blame myself for being inattentive or oblivious to what the author was intending. But more and more, I'm starting to blame it on over-ambitious authors who are not as clever as they think they are. It is especially frustrating in mysteries or longish novels of any type.

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  6. To me, it feels like Moss had this great plan in store for the ending, and built the story up fantastically for jt. But then ran out of time, so came up with a vague ending. Either way it was a very frustrating way to end what seemed like a very good book. Definitely feel cheated.

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    1. I share your frustration. The abruptness of the ending is what I first noticed...and then I started trying to figure out what she was implying had happened. The whole thing did take a lot of luster off the book for me.

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