“Overtly about a crisis” – The Fell by Sarah Moss

IMG_29Sep2021at141904It’s November 2020 in a small unnamed village in the Peak District during the second Coronavirus lockdown. Single mum, Kate, and her fifteen-year-old son, Matt, are having to self-isolate for two weeks, because Kate has been contact-traced through someone at the café where she works. Matt spends his time holed up in his bedroom playing video games on his computer. Kate has been using the time to tidy and declutter the house and there are boxes of stuff in the hall waiting to be taken to charity shops when they reopen. Their neighbour, Alice, a widow deemed vulnerable due to cancer, is shielding. From her bedroom window she watches Kate leave the house wearing hiking boots and carrying a backpack and walk up the road leading to the fell. Alice knows she ought to call the police and report Kate for breaking her quarantine, but she doesn’t. Half-way through her confinement she imagines Kate’s struggle to stay cooped up in the house for all that time. What harm can there be in going up into the hills on her own where she is likely to meet only a few sheep?

One of the first Covid-19 novels, of which there will doubtlessly be more in the future, Sarah Moss’ eighth novel has many similarities with her previous one, Summerwater, published in 2020. Both novels (or novellas, since they’re under 200 pages in length) take place over the period of twenty four hours. Both deal with claustrophobia, confinement, the proximity to other people and the protagonist’s need to temporarily escape from these and commune with nature and the outdoors.

Moss is one of the few writers in contemporary British literature who digs deep into the inner lives of her characters. It is tremendously satisfying to get to know the protagonists who people her narratives more intimately in this way and makes a refreshing change from the often shallow or wooden depiction of characters we find in twenty-first-century fiction, whether or not it is how writers perceive the behaviour of younger generations in the digitally obsessed culture of our age. Here is Alice musing about her neighbours and their predicament:

“Matt and Kate are, what do they call it, self-isolating, one of those horrible new nonsensical phrases, social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing. Medical distance they should call it, or why not just safe distance?”

As in Summerwater, Moss explores her characters through extended stream-of-consciousness monologues which occasionally run on for several pages. Furthermore, she follows the current trend of not using quotation marks for her dialogue. Neither does she separate speech from the rest of the text, so at times it can be difficult to know whether it’s someone speaking or their internal thoughts.

As Kate starts ascending the fell, she ponders:

“There’s no point in thinking about how this will ever end. All the other plagues ended, sooner or later, though most of them went away as well as coming back, some years, some decades, later, and people lived and loved and built houses and planted trees and made food and clothes, and stained glass, travelled and even made music and put on plays.”

What happens to Kate up on the fell alone after dusk falls is predictable and it’s interesting to read how Moss deals with Kate’s thought process, knowing that she is in trouble, but also that she shouldn’t have left the house in the first place. Her reasoning is hardly that of a madwoman, but rather of someone normally rational who has temporarily lost the ability to think logically in light of her predicament and the cold and dark of the night.

Matt waits for his Mum, expecting, at any moment, to hear her unlatch the gate, walk up the path, open the door and drop her keys on the hall table as she usually does when she’s been out. He doesn’t know what to do. Eventually, desperate, he goes next door and rings Alice’s doorbell. Although Moss doesn’t take the reader through the process as Alice calls the police and rescue services, it becomes clear that a search of the fell is being organised and all they can now do is wait for news, whatever it brings. And because of Covid Matt has to return home alone and Alice goes upstairs to bed and tries to read, but all her senses are alert to the sounds coming from outside her window. Here Matt reflects on events:

“He didn’t think this would ever happen. It’s all wrong for it to be the kid sitting at home worrying about the mum; he doesn’t know how to do this. It was stupid not to take her phone; what’s the point of having a phone if you’re always leaving it when you go out. It was stupid of her to go out. She could have waited, couldn’t she, another week, kept on digging the garden and leaving her yoga mat all over the sitting room. Plenty of people don’t go out for walks from one month to the next, and if she was going for a walk the least she could have done was tell him.”

Her stream-of-consciousness writing apart, Moss writes sparingly and intelligently, managing to pack an awful lot of material into her short novel that will give the reader pause to reflect on. It is quite strange to read a piece of fiction which explores a situation we are still living through and for which no one is quite able to predict the outcome. While Summerwater is clearly set during the uneasy lead up to Brexit, without stating so outright, and Moss’ much-hyped novel, Ghost Wall (2018), is an exploration of the lacuna between the past and the present, and, by implication, exerts itself as an existential crisis in one of the main characters, The Fell is overtly about a crisis that is far-reaching in every way possible — not only in terms of the population’s health, but economically, politically and culturally, too.

The only slight quibble I have about The Fell is its ending. The last fifteen pages are a series of short vignettes which add nothing to the story and, I would even go as far as suggesting, detract from the full impact which the novel makes upon any reader open to all its nuances. Leaving them out would have lost nothing of the story being told.

Any Cop?: Sarah Moss’ intelligence and skill as a writer shine through yet again. Highly recommended reading.

Carola Huttmann

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