Against the wisdom of the ages, you can tell a book by its cover. You can usually tell one by its title, too.
“Summerwater” is Sarah Moss’s new novel. Her title is taken from the “The Ballad of Semmerwater,” a poem by the Englishman William Watson (1858-1935). It suggests density and perhaps difficulty, in the manner of the word “riverrun,” which appears in the first sentence of “Finnegans Wake.” As titles go, it’s mildly pretentious.
Yet Moss, except in flashes, is anything but a pretentious writer. She writes beautifully about English middle-class life, about souls in tumult, about people whose lives have not turned out the way they’d hoped.
She catches the details of ordinary existence in a manner that’s reminiscent of the director Mike Leigh: the peeling roof tiles, the cheap plastic teakettles, the beans on toast. She never condescends, and her fluid prose is suggestive of larger and darker human themes.
Reading her, one recalls John Barth’s comment that the best literature is “both of stunning literary quality and democratic of access.”
Moss was born in Glasgow, and teaches at University College Dublin. This is her seventh novel. Her previous one, “Ghost Wall,” is about a family on a two-week academic re-enactment, in the manner of American Civil War re-enactments, of Iron Age culture and rituals. That book has an ominous undertow and a certain greatness.
“Summerwater” is a bit less tightly wound than “Ghost Wall,” and it has an expedient ending. But there’s little doubt, reading Moss, that you’re in the hands of a sophisticated and gifted writer.
Her new novel is set in a vacation park in Scotland over the course of a long, cool, oppressively rainy day in August. The park is on a loch in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a 10-mile single-track road.
People are stuck in their cabins. There’s no wifi. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, they’re thrown back on their own wiles. They stare out the windows at one another, like animals curious about bristly new creatures that have gathered around the watering hole. The surveillance is nearly totalitarian. Everyone vaguely hates everyone else.
We meet Moss’s characters one by one, in discrete chapters. Justine, in middle age, is a compulsive runner who wishes she’d traveled more when young and hadn’t settled for Steve, her lumpish husband.
Have you ever sneered at a runner? Have you, running, ever sneered at a less fit bystander? Justine recalls being called a rude name by a larger woman and saying to herself, “What are you going to do, hm, chase me, bring it on love, bring it on. You can’t help thinking, well, if you’d done a bit more of this you wouldn’t be like that, would you now?”
Two thoughts about this quote: 1) Snarkiness aside, Moss writes as well about the physical and mental aspects of running as any writer this side of Jamie Quatro, the author of the story collection “I Want to Show You More.” 2) You can as easily imagine Moss writing this scene from the non-runner’s point of view.
“Summerwater” is intimately concerned with social class. Justine chose this remote park in the hope of avoiding the wrong sort of people and finding the right sort, “those who don’t need fried food and warm sweet milky drinks always on demand, gift shops and public toilets, people who want to get out of their cars.”
It’s comic gold when, a few pages later, a man looks out at her racing past in her skintight neon and thinks she’s the wrong sort of person.
We meet unhappy teenagers; frazzled mothers weary from the day’s hassle; a boy who goes too far out in a kayak; a woman in the early stages of dementia; young couples who have so much sex they don’t notice the dismal rain.
A young woman named Milly thinks there should be signs one could make during sex, like naval signs (“Man Overboard”), to indicate joy and distress. Her ideas for these include: “Actually That Hurts a Bit” and “This Isn’t Working for Me.”
As always in Moss’s work, there is a strong sense of the natural world. There are riddles of existence she’s shaking down. As a character puts it in “Ghost Wall,” “ancient knowledge runs somehow in our blood.”
As always in Moss’s work, too, there is an ominous quality, slow uncanny beats from an extra subwoofer or two, mighty but muffled. A strange man lurks at the edge of the woods. Justine has a heart problem and ignores the advice of her doctor, who has told her not to run.
The darkness in “Summerwater” gathers most fully around the vacationers’ fear and dislike of a family of foreigners, “Romanians” who play their music loud and late, and whose kids throw rocks at other kids. Will any of the men work up the nerve to confront the noisemakers?
These characters are aware that America has gone mad under its 45th president, that a hinge has come loose on the door of world comity. Brexit? One character driving on a lonely, well-made road calls it “a fine smooth EU-funded miracle of engineering.”
“How could the English be so stupid, he thinks again pointlessly, how could they not see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city center regeneration of the last 30 years?”
One senses Moss stumbling toward an ending rather than running confidently downhill toward one. This is comment more than complaint. Endings don’t matter to me quite as much as they do to many.
If I’ve been allowed to ride shotgun on a magnificent cross-country drive and the car breaks down in Reno? Well, sorry to miss you, Los Angeles, but I’ve got my memories. This metaphor, alas, does not work so well with travel by ship or plane.
Iris Murdoch’s “A Severed Head” is a great fog novel. “Summerwater” is pretty close to a great rain novel. “The Scottish sky,” Moss writes, “is better at obscenity than any human voice.”