Sarah Moss

Picador, £14.99

Review by Andrew Meehan

Edward Thomas, in his 1916 poem It Rains, writes of “the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me/ Remembering again that I shall die/And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks/ For washing me cleaner than I have been.”

Summerwater, Sarah Moss’s new novel, her seventh, takes place at midsummer in a Scottish cabin park. It rains there, too, and the thinking is as wild as in any war poem. Summerwater is lighter on its feet but no less anxious than Moss’s 2018 masterpiece Ghost Wall. Good stories grow anywhere and these characters are cooped up in their cabins, wary of their neighbours and awkward with themselves.

Do holidays imply peace of mind? Well. Summerwater begins with Justine, who runs early in the morning while the rest of her family are still asleep. At the start of the book she’s considering where to go. If she runs as long as she wants to, she might have to snack later, and if she snacks the children will want to do the same. Then she remembers:“She's got four protein bars tucked into her packet of sanitary towels in the suitcase, the only place no one else is likely to look, and she's not too proud to eat them in the bathroom if she has to.”

It's an aside but, in this book, nothing feels like an aside. This is a subtle but significant scene in which Moss takes us into her confidence. When it comes to the workings of the secret heart, and the exchange between mind and body, this is a writer with few equals (I’m thinking of Anne Enright and Han Kang and not many others).

Here we have the normalcy and lunacy of Brits on holiday. When Claire gets an hour to herself, she tries to lick the hair on her nipples. There is Milly who, in the build up to Project Simultaneous Orgasms, wonders about bread for sandwiches. Quite a feat, when you think of it, to be even considering sex in a Scottish cabin park in the rain. David, a retired doctor, knows the road by the loch as well as he knows the human body. And Moss is just as good on the body - childbirth, say - as she is on teenagers, or slugs. Though she’s quite superb on slugs: “Things shouldn’t be made like that…”

Spores drift up from the pages and you start to feel another presence entirely: alongside holidaymakers in repose - and distress - are short chapters told from inside an anthill, or from the point of view of a doe. Then these spectral fears dissolve into a character’s annoyance with the crust on a baking tray.

Not until rather late in the day does something happen to disturb this equilibrium. There hasn’t seemed to be any plan. But there is always a plan and, by now, Moss has done all the work she needs to do. This a writer in whose gifts we trust, and she pulls off feat after feat of daring and empathy and wisdom.

Justine, whose thoughts on running might be mistaken for Moss’ own considerations on the writing process, completes marathons in private. And Moss’s sentences run on too. You hear them long after you read them; thought and feeling dissolving with animal grace. And, even as you delight in them, her paragraphs swing off and away - bound for the horizon? - only to be found by the side of the road, bent double, not in exhaustion but in the study of an object in close quarters, just as we do when we remember what’s so revelatory about Scotland in the rain.