The Fell and Summerwater by Sarah Moss: Book Review

“All the other plagues ended, sooner or later […] and people lived and loved and built houses and planted trees and made food and clothes – and stained glass, travelled, even made music and put on plays. Ring a ring of roses. […] And of course life won’t go back to the way it was, it never does and rarely should.”

Sarah Moss, The Fell

I love Sarah Moss’ writing. It’s straightforward and poetic in its intoxicating flow. Like Summerwater, The Fell is told from several different perspectives which give the reader insight into different points of view of the same problem: the isolation and claustrophobia during the lockdowns. Moss is a keen observer of human nature and the depth of her insight makes her characters pop from the page despite their common doomy drollness. We all know a Kate or an Alice or a Rob, don’t we?

Sarah Moss

“One of the things we’re learning, we of the end times, is that humanity’s ending appears to be slow, lacking in cliffhangers or indeed any satisfactory narrative shape; characterised, for the lucky, by the gradual vindication of accumulating dread.”

The Pandemic

The question of access to the outdoors has been the subject of heated debate in the past two years. Is it essential? Is there enough space to maintain distance and prevent the spread of contagion? This heated and rather tired issue of access to the outdoors gives Moss the topic for her novel. 

Kate, the stressed single mother in financial straits has been a close contact at work and is hence in house confinement with her teenage son, Matt. It’s the time of the second lockdown, in the midst of a dank November of 2020, and Kate misses going out with friends, singing in the pub, and most of all, hiking in the moors. ‘How is anyone going to get sick from walking a few miles over the moor and standing on a hillside in the wind?’ she wonders, and this is the line of reasoning that eventually prevails as she storms out into a cold evening for what is going to turn out to be a misadventure in the hills.  

The character that I empathise the most with is Matt. He shows more restraint than Kate, is very careful around Alice, and is very self-composed in the face of the problem that might be lurking from behind the hill. 

 “There will be holes in the children’s education, a generation that’s forgotten or never learnt how to go to a party, people of all ages who won’t forget to be afraid to leave the house, to be afraid of other people, afraid to touch or dance or sing, to travel, to try on clothes – whisht, she thinks again, hush now. Walk.”

The Problematic Protagonist

I’ve come across a lot of reviews that bash Moss for justifying Kate’s actions in the book, but I feel that what they forget is that Kate’s side of the story is told by a limited narrator who expresses ONLY Kate’s POV – which is most definitely not perfect. Kate is so irritating to some simply because she is portrayed in a very realistic way. The anxiety, the desire to be in the open space, the justification of her actions – they all resonate with all of us. Again, when one analyses Kate and what one learns about her past, this lack of self-restraint goes hand in hand with her character arc.

Hikers in Peak District during autumn sunset. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

THE vulnerable

Alice is a retiree, classified as ‘vulnerable’ because of both her age and her recent cancer treatment. When Matt realises that Kate is in trouble, there is a wonderfully written moment in which Alice is torn between wanting to comfort him and needing to keep distance for fear of becoming ill. She lies in her comfortable bed worrying about Matt, thinking about her own children and grandchildren, and reexamining her own life. 


This is the narrative that has been all over the media lately. The story behind the closed doors of the first responders, the ones who put other before themselves, the problem-fixers and life-savers. Rob is a local volunteer with search and rescue efforts. On the night in question, he puts his duty towards the community before his own family. He doesn’t know whether the person he’s looking for actually wants to be found, but he keeps looking. 


Home is not always a refuge. It can be a place of violence, boredom, and isolation – the fear of ‘doors and curtains’ manifested in Kate’s escapade. A teenager oscillates between the freedom to do as he likes and the fear of being abandoned and left to fend for himself. An old woman enjoys the comforts of her own home and simultaneously struggles with isolation and illness.

The Fell may be a rather short book, but the essence of the lockdown is here, from everyday negotiations over simple things to major ethical questions and responsibilities. 


Inspired and titled after Watson’s poem about the waters of a lake rising a drowning a village after it refused hospitality to a stranger from a distant land, Sarah Moss’ novel is a powerful commentary on social classes and immigration politics. 

Deep asleep, deep asleep,
Deep asleep it lies,
The still lake of Semerwater
Under the still skies

And many a fathom
Many a fathom
Many a fathom below,
In a king’s tower and a queens bower
The fishes come and go

‘The Ballad of Semerwater’ by William Watson

On the shore of a loch lies a small community of wooden holiday cabins drowning in an unyielding downpour of rain. Every cabin holds several stories that flow and mix like the murky waters of the loch. The novel begins at dawn and ends at night and from the very beginning, you know that there is something terrible stirring under the surface. Young and old, all characters are deeply flawed, morally compromised, and borderline reckless. A young woman has a heart condition that she keeps secret, an old man drives his car too fast, a boy paddles his kayak too far out in the pouring rain, and a little girl bullies another girl with a foreign-sounding name. 

The stories of the holidaymakers unravel within the framework of the silent conflicts of family life, the omnipresent political climate, and the surrounding nature. The little girl expresses what everyone else seems to  be thinking about the ‘Romanians / Poles / Ukrainians’ next door: ‘You’re supposed to have left, you know, people like you, did you not get the message?’ The resentment harbored towards the English also glints just underneath the surface together with a cocktail of fears and frustrations that is eventually bound to explode.

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