Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Sarah Moss’s Summerwater – a novel of wit and verve and beauty
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself this evening with an excerpt from Summerwater, the powerful new novel by Sarah Moss.
‘Sharp, searching, thoroughly imagined, it is utterly of the moment, placing its anxious human dots against a vast indifferent landscape; with its wit and verve and beautiful organisation it throws much contemporary writing into the shade!’ – Hilary Mantel, Man Booker winning author of Wolf Hall
‘Nothing escapes her sly humour and brilliant touch. Deft and brimming with life, Summerwater is a novel of endless depth. A masterpiece.’ – Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist
About the book
From the acclaimed author of Ghost Wall, Summerwater is a devastating story told over twenty-four hours in the Scottish highlands, and a searing exploration of our capacity for both kinship and cruelty in these divided times.
On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.
A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.
Read the excerpt:
the sounds of blood and air
Dawn. There’s no sunrise, no birdsong.
Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there’s no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is raining; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped.
she could have kept going
JUSTINE HAS SLEPT the way she used to sleep before taking a morning flight. You wake to check the time, reach out in the dark for your phone, for the button you can find in your sleep. It tells you not yet, there are hours still, hours you can spend warm and oblivious, almost as many as when you last looked.
You dream of packing and hurrying, and wake again: it must be nearly time, might even be late, but only twenty minutes have passed. Sleep again, wake again, the short summer night lasting implausible hours, something deep in your brain, some ancient bit of wiring or plumbing originally developed to deal with the beginning of the salmon run or the week the berries ripen, unable to settle. She can’t set an alarm because it would wake Steve, but something in her mind – in the part that looks after the breathing and the heart and the listening for the kids while she’s asleep – knows the time, reads the tilt of the earth and the turn of the sky.
She opens her eyes, looks at the pine panelling not a foot from her face, at the knots in the wood and the bubbles in the varnish rough to the touch, like scabbed skin. There won’t be a plane this summer, or next. Who could afford to travel, now? If she’d known, she thinks, if she’d known that she wasn’t going to achieve financial comfort or even security as the years went by, if she’d recognised the good times when she had them, she’d have travelled more when she was young, she’d have bought one of those train tickets, those passes, and gone everywhere, northern Norway to Sicily, Istanbul to County Clare. She’d have taken a year out, several years out, before settling for Steve, worked her way round waitressing or whatever. If she’d had the confidence then, if she’d known how to apply for a passport and buy a ticket and board a plane when she was young enough to walk away. She should have gone to Paris and Vienna, to Venice. It’s hard to imagine now how she’ll ever see vineyards terraced above a sparkling sea, olives ripening silver-leaved or a sunlit orange grove. It probably doesn’t matter, really. But she would have liked the kids to hear languages they don’t speak, or don’t speak yet, to eat food they don’t recognise, to cross roads with the cars on the wrong side, see with their own eyes that the world is wide and ways of doing things mostly just habit. Not that you can’t still hear languages in Manchester, of course. Not that there aren’t strange things to eat. Not that her kids will eat strange things, not that they’ve shown any interest in languages.
Anyway, here it is, 5 a.m., as planned, daylight already. Time to get out and back and showered before the boys are wanting breakfast. Other people lie in, on holiday, especially after being kept awake half the night by those selfish fuckers with their loud music who must have known they were ruining the sleep and hence the next day for all the little kids and their parents and the old folk and all. Justine didn’t much mind, just read on her tablet until she was sleepy enough not to be bothered, and the kids slept right through the way they sleep through the smoke alarm at home – always cheering, that – but Steve got his knickers in a bit of a twist and Justine bets that family with the baby had a bad night, right next door to it as well. They’ve had parties twice this week, not really a problem you expect out here, away at the end of the road, it’s where you come for peace and quiet – anyway, she inches herself to the edge of the bed, not turning or rising or disarranging the duvet in any way that would subject Steve to a draught, not that it ever occurs to him to moderate his own insomniac walrussing to save her rest, coughing and scratching and throwing himself around. He won’t even sit down to pee now he’s started getting up in the middle of the night, would rather wake her pissing like a horse than sit like a woman just the once. It’s a thin partition, she says, I can hear everything, it’s not nice. It puts you off, lying there listening to aggressive peeing from someone who could perfectly well just bloody sit down but won’t because in his head the masculinity police are watching even in the middle of the night, hiding, peering in through the windows or crouching in the laundry basket. Which is admittedly big enough for a couple of coppers. She has no idea how she’ll get all the clothes dry in this weather, not that you come to Scotland expecting sun but this is really a bit much, day after day of it, torrential – all very well the cabin coming with a washing machine but it’s actually less hassle to wash things by hand than dry them without a dryer. Getting wet is always the easy part. She rolls neatly to her feet and dips her head while everything blurs and dims and rings and then comes back into focus. Low blood pressure, she’ll live for ever. She’s learnt the creaks of this floor now, makes a long stride over the worn patch. Steve’ll whinge if she wakes him, try to get her to have sex instead of running, easy enough to fend him off but then she’s started the day, started the ticking clock of what she ought to be doing, wife and mother, on holiday, cleaning and breakfast and fun for the kids, making memories and making sure to photograph them in case they turn out not to be memorable after all. She sidles where the carpet is unworn. Christ this carpet, what were the owners thinking? Back-street pub circa 1988, that’s what. Even if it’s clean, it makes you think they’re hiding filth, like the upholstery in a bus.
She floats paper in the loo to muffle the noise, sits forward, doesn’t flush. Washes her hands properly, Imperial Leather for a nostalgic holiday treat, always takes her back, used to seem so posh thirty years ago in Libby’s house where they also had branded biscuits and real Coke. You’re not supposed to put soap on your face at her age, dries the skin and gives you wrinkles, but she likes the tight clean feeling and she doesn’t have dry skin or wrinkles. She scoops water into her mouth, the taste different from at home, more like the smell of outside, growing plants and damp earth. Another handful, not that she’ll sweat much in the rain but it’s easier with more fluids on board.
She left her kit ready in here last night. Yesterday’s knickers, they’ll be in the wash as soon as she’s back; the moment of fear as she fights to get her elbows through her sports bra. One of these days, she thinks, one of these days a woman is going to die doing this, or at least dislocate her shoulder, and it’ll be worse getting it off all wet. She probably doesn’t need it anyway, the special tight bra, but they always say you must, however tiny your tits, or terrible things will happen. Running socks, Steve has no idea how expensive but they do make a difference and she’s just the one pair, cheap vest top made in Bangladesh doubtless by kids younger than hers but what can you do (not buy it, obviously). The thing about running in the rain is to wear as little as possible, your skin’s waterproof and it’s layers of wet fabric that make you cold, not to mention the chafing. Capri leggings, she’s not shaved her legs, no point in this weather, but any other loon out there in this rain will have better things to think about.
She looks in the mirror. So maybe she was wrong about the wrinkles. So what?
Both hands to ease the door handle, stop at the children’s door to unravel two sets of breathing, dither about whether to take the one key leaving them locked in and needing to go through the windows in a fire, the windows being low and easy to open and there being no plausible cause of fire just now, or leave the key meaning that she can’t lock the door and there are three beloved souls sleeping undefended in the woods, or at least two beloved souls and one mostly tolerated one. Fire, she thinks, is more likely than murderous nutters, you do hear of psychopaths hanging out in holiday parks but only in America and the good thing about being at the end of a ten-mile single-track road is that the getaway options are crap. Unless, of course, the nutter plans to hide in the woods until dark, but there’s not much dark this time of year and wouldn’t the police bring dogs? Or he could swim across the loch, at least if he’d thought to bring a wetsuit. Or she. Women can probably be serial killers too, wasn’t there one in Japan, though that was life-insurance fraud more than sadism, not that it makes much difference to the victims, though a fraudster probably kills you faster than a sadist so maybe it does. You’d need to get into the wetsuit before embarking on your murderous games, not something you want to be doing between committing a crime and leaving the scene, even worse than putting on a sports bra. Jesus, look at that rain. There’s almost no point putting clothes on for that, if she’d brought her swimming costume she’d wear it. One thing, it can’t keep up like that all day, there can’t be that much water up there. She sits on the veranda to fasten her shoes, to adjust her armband and choose her music. She should probably run mindfully here, listening to the wind in the trees and the lapping of the loch and any birds deranged enough to attempt flight in the deluge but fuck that, she needs music for her feet, music to connect her feet to the ground so she doesn’t have to think about it. It’s not, she sees, even half-five yet, she can have two hours if she wants them, get in a quick 20k, though if she does that she’ll be eating all day and the kids wanting a snack every time they see her but she knows she’s going to do it anyway. She’s got four peanut protein bars tucked into her packet of sanitary towels in the suitcase, the only place no one else is likely to look, and she’s not too proud to eat them in the bathroom if she has to.