Staying at a tourist campsite at a loch in Scotland, the different families of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater (203 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) have to contend with a day of heavy summer rain. Even though relatively little action occurs for most of Moss’s humorous and poetic novel, Summerwater’s narrative is driven by its various characters’ contemplations during the rainstorm. From frustrated teenage siblings to a little girl taunting a stranger to an elderly couple silently wrestling with the past, the diverse characters reveal themselves through their internal stream-of-consciousness dialogue as they contemplate mortality, regret, and marriage, as well as their rained-out vacation.
The characters’ physical disconnection from what’s outside the loch mirrors how wrapped up they are in their own worlds as they meditate on their discontentment and guess at what the others are thinking. In this way, their rainy day exemplifies Sir William Watson’s “The Ballad of Semmerwater,” a poem that an elderly woman named Mary attempts to recite: “Deep asleep, deep asleep, Deep asleep it lies, The still lake of Summerwater [“Semmerwater” in Watson’s poem] Under the still skies.” Their self-preoccupation leaves them in a state of oblivion and motionlessness reflected by the downpour itself. “These midsummer days move too slowly to see,” the narrators says, “especially with the curtains of rain and cloud closed upon the woods and shore.” Ultimately, they must face the consequences of remaining in stasis.
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Part of the shared complaint about their rainy vacation is the idealized perception that the homes they left behind are more familiar and convenient. But in truth, they are the sites of their battles, which have followed them to the loch. Several characters mull over dissatisfaction and friction in their marriages. David, an older man, observes that there “are moments in his retirement that seem to be the opposite of dancing, a daily game of hide and seek in which the unspeakable objective is to avoid the beloved.” This relational disunity constantly shows its face over the course of the novel. On top of concerns about relationships, the notion of death and the inevitable, treated with varying degrees of fear, denial, and acceptance, also permeates their thoughts. Teenage Alex travels through the loch in treacherous weather, hoping he will be able to return to his cabin alive. Not even vacation is a true escape from the worries pressing on each of their minds.
Summerwater also illustrates how people’s personal concerns are linked to the natural world through Moss’s vivid evocation of the loch, showing how common occurrences in nature can echo emotional truths. Moss carefully weaves her themes throughout her novel, connecting the characters and beautifully tying up the story with a shocking denouement that leaves the reader pondering the unexpected turns of life.