When I came across this new novella by Sarah Moss at the library last week, I was surprised. It seems like Summerwater only came out a couple of months ago. But, in fact, it’s been a couple of years, and her books are often very short, so it should be no surprise to see a new one every year or two.
The Fell is very much a book of the moment, in that it’s set during the pandemic, at a time when strict lockdowns were in place in the UK for people who’d been exposed to the virus. And Kate, a hippy-type single mom who works in a cafe, has been exposed, forcing her and her teenage son Matt to confine themselves to their home and garden. But then Kate decides she just can’t handle it any more, so she goes for a walk. It shouldn’t be a big deal. The paths are generally pretty secluded, and the outdoors are safe. Except that there’s also a risk of falling.
The novel follows Kate and Matt’s thoughts during the hours before and during Kate’s disappearance. Also featured is their elderly neighbor Alice, who bakes cookies but worries about how to share them safely, as well as Rob, the search and rescue volunteer who’s called out to find Kate. For all these characters, their present circumstances — both the pandemic and Kate’s disappearance — become a reason to consider why they live their lives as they do and what a good life should look like. The kind of thinking the pandemic sparked in a lot of people. They’re especially caught in thoughts about their relationship between themselves and the world, with the tension between independence and dependence, isolation and community. All the stuff the pandemic raised, but stuff that’s always bubbling in the background, whether we notice it or not.
I was especially struck by this, from one of Alice’s musing about the solitude brought on by the pandemic:
There’s nothing she can do, she reminds herself, which could be the motto of the last six months, and the way things are looking also the next six months, and who knows about the six months after that. A person can doubtless live like this indefinitely, the background murmur of dread only a little louder week by week, month by month — well, that’s obvious, isn’t it, people don’t die of dread, nor even imprisonment, or at least they do but not directly from being shut away, from lack of access to healthcare and poor diet and suicide and many of the reason that put them there in the first place, shame on her for comparing her comfy house, mortgage paid off, with her kind neighbors and her garden, to a prison.
So much about this. The background murmur of dread. I feel like I hear that a lot. But I also feel the guilt about complaining because I know, all things considered, I’m fortunate. But still … that murmur of dread.
I think this book is kind of about going on with life with that dread there, a raven watching over us and taunting us as we linger in our own pain, lost on our own hillsides. But maybe it’s also keeping us awake and ready to respond when there’s something we can do.