‘She must turn back. She can hear her children turning in their beds, scent their morning breath, feel on her fingers the roughness of their uncombed hair. There’ll be small bare feet on that carpet, small morning erections in dinosaur pyjamas. She’ll just go to that bay ahead, where the loch laps boulders and tree roots under the fog, a tenderness between water and land that’s almost a beach, and she’ll pause there, a moment’s triumph before she turns back.’
I was in Kirkcudbright for the day a few months ago and happened to notice Gallovidia Books, a picturesque little independent bookshop on the main street. As you often find in these places, the staff are immensely knowledgeable, and upon picking up ‘Summerwater’ by Sarah Moss I was informed that it was a clever and absorbing read that the assistant had himself only just finished.
It did not slip my notice that £14.99 is rather a lot to pay for a novel comprising no more than two-hundred words. Nevertheless, brevity is to be admired in today’s fiction market, and there is a certain implied confidence in not padding out a narrative for the sake of convention. Sarah Moss certainly has no reason to lack confidence. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at University College Dublin, and her six novels have been nominated for and won a slew of literary awards.
Immediately striking to the reader is the sense of unease Moss manages to create. A holiday park on the banks of a rain-spattered loch provides an off-key backdrop for the novel. There is a sense of unease as we meet characters peering out of the chalets, donning macs to catch ferries, running though mud and puddles, and paddling kayaks out into the choppy waves. There is no immediate sense of danger for any of these characters – something which makes the book more intriguing, as we know something will happen to one or more of them. Moss manages to build this tension incrementally, toying with readers’ expectations.
The structure of the book is atypical. Each chapter is close third person perspective, but with no one perspective given more than a couple of chapters. The skill in being able to develop a voice, a backstory, drivers, and conflict within these confined spaces is quite something, and then to slot these into an overarching narrative curve is quite extraordinary. Every character has a secret, big or small. Every person is struggling with life in their own small way. When the shattering climax of the film arrives, it is beautiful and heart-breaking in its ability to bring these threads together.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0