Postal Reading group
October 2021
Notes on the book Summer Water by Sarah Moss

When trying to choose a book for the group this year I found myself in something of a quandary. Over the course of a year’s reading, I can’t remember anything which really stood out. The book which I finally chose, Summer water by Sarah Moss is perhaps a case in point. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book divides opinion in the group, and if you’re one who doesn’t enjoy it, or perhaps, doesn’t see the point, then I can almost hear the incredulous “You mean that’s the best thing you’ve read all year?” Perhaps you can take my point.

However, occasionally a group like this will surprise us with a book which we wouldn’t normally enjoy. In this case I can share in that surprise. Although this is my first experience of this author, in retrospect I can see that I wouldn’t normally have enjoyed it. It was the rainy day in Scotland that first attracted me; I have certainly experienced my fair share of those!

The basic idea is that twelve people on holiday in a cabin park in the Scottish Highlands look out on the unrelenting rain. However, one particular family begins to draw the attention of the other holidaymakers. Written as a series of vignettes this novella has very little in the way of plot: people stuck indoors watching other holidaymakers do the same. All of the action takes place in a single day, and much of the writing is ‘stream of consciousness’ style, while none of the characters is particularly appealing. In short it is not the kind of book which I would normally find appealing.

However, in this case, I thought it worked well. There are obvious references to some kind of post Brexit world, and of course, the question of how we view immigrants and outsiders in general. Many of the characters seem to spend their time wishing that they had taken the opportunity to travel more, and weren’t stuck in a faded cabin park on a wet day in Scotland. The runner in the opening chapter wishes: “If she’d recognised the good times when she had them, she’d have travelled more when she was young” (p. 4). Later, Alex dreams of windsurfing in Australia or kayaking in Canadian rivers (p. 85). Certainly many more than usual seem to have been ‘staycationing’ this year, although to be fair this is partly the effect of the pandemic too.

What seems to unite all of the characters is their hatred of the Ukranian family. Of course, I can understand that to an extent, especially after the all night parties. While some of the characters are quick to justify themselves, by blaming the antisocial behaviour, the implication is that, all too often, we seem to highlight obvious differences in people (such as their nationality), rather than similarities (trying to have a holiday while its pouring with rain). What is particularly disgraceful is that the children should be joining in with the discrimination too, and on the other side, that Violetta should be singled out.

Throughout the book, there is so little action, that the final dramatic conclusion, taking place over the course of just one chapter, is a real surprise. In many respects this is probably the weakest aspect of the book, almost as if it has been inserted in an attempt to provide some action in an otherwise static book. Although I must admit that the ending does seem rather contrived, there is at least a clue to the cause of that event hidden in that final chapter.

Beyond all this, although many of the characters seem quite unlikable, the family dramas played out on that wet day do seem so realistic. Becky, a rather difficult teenage girl can’t have been easy to live with, but to be fair she does make some valid points about family holidays. In my case, most of them were spent on a boat on the Norfolk Broads. This is fine for the first few occasions, and it seems like fun when you’re aged seven, but it does begin to drag a bit. Equally on the other side, are the parents struggling to keep children occupied when they’re stuck indoors and with precious few amenities at their disposal.

Another interesting feature of the book is the short passages which preceed each chapter, or each person’s story. These concentrate on the natural world; a welcome change from the politics of Brexit or Scottish independence. Although I feel on surer ground with these, and they are perceptive and informative, it is not immediately clear how they fit in with the rest of the narrative. Perhaps they are intended as a salutory reminder that the Earth has been around long before humans, and will still be around long after us.

So far, I have ignored the rainy day. Of course, this may be unremarkable, especially in Scotland. However, the message seems to be that there’s something different about this rain, and the effects of climate change can no longer be ignored; a reference to notable rainfall of August 2020, perhaps. While we may more readily associate this with heatwaves and summer droughts, there is little question that the usually moderate British climate is becoming more extreme. The UK Climate Projections mention the likelihood of notable rainfall despite an overall trend for drier summers. While Southern Britain suffers more frequent heatwaves, Atlantic weather systems can stall over Scotland bringing persistent rain. Equally, one of the characters recalls the hot sunny days they had had the previous year; a nod to the other extreme and more reminiscent of the conditions in Scotland this year. On a wild swimming trip in July I didn’t mind too much, but it would have been less suitable for hillwalking, or running up the Ben!

In conclusion this is a book which I wouldn’t normally have enjoyed, but which, unexpectedly, I did. The various aspects which can be so annoying, like the stream of consciousness style, seem to work well here and create a poignant novella set against a backdrop of political turmoil and climate change. I would be interested to know what others think. although I apologise in advance if you can’t quite see the point of this book. I really don’t mean to use you as guinea-pigs to test opinions on what might be a divisive book.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler