The Fell by Sarah Moss for #NovNov

Sarah Moss’s latest three releases have all been of novella length. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Novellas in November in 2018, and Summerwater in August 2020. In this trio, she’s demonstrated a fascination with what happens when people of diverging backgrounds and opinions are thrown together in extreme circumstances. Moss almost stops time as her effortless third-person omniscient narration moves from one character’s head to another. We feel that we know each one’s experiences and motivations from the inside. Whereas Ghost Wall was set in two weeks of a late-1980s summer, Summerwater and now the taut The Fell have pushed that time compression even further, spanning a day and about half a day, respectively.

A circadian narrative holds a lot of appeal – we’re all tantalized, I think, by the potential difference that one day can make. The particular day chosen as the backdrop for The Fell offers an ideal combination of the mundane and the climactic because it was during the UK’s November 2020 lockdown. On top of that blanket restriction, single mum Kate has been exposed to Covid-19 via a café colleague, so she and her teenage son Matt are meant to be in strict two-week quarantine. Except Kate can’t bear to be cooped up one minute longer and, as dusk falls, she sneaks out of their home in the Peak District National Park to climb a nearby hill. She knows this fell like the back of her hand, so doesn’t bother taking her phone.

Over the next 12 hours or so, we dart between four stream-of-consciousness internal monologues: besides Kate and Matt, the two main characters are their neighbour, Alice, an older widow who has undergone cancer treatment; and Rob, part of the volunteer hill rescue crew sent out to find Kate when she fails to return quickly. For the most part – as befits the lockdown – each is stuck in their solitary musings (Kate regrets her marriage, Alice reflects on a bristly relationship with her daughter, Rob remembers a friend who died up a mountain), but there are also a few brief interactions between them. I particularly enjoyed time spent with Kate as she sings religious songs and imagines a raven conducting her inquisition.

What Moss wants to do here, is done well. My misgiving is to do with the recycling of an identical approach from Summerwater – not just the circadian limit, present tense, no speech marks and POV-hopping, but also naming each short chapter after a random phrase from it. Another problem is one of timing. Had this come out last November, or even this January, it might have been close enough to events to be essential. Instead, it seems stuck in a time warp. Early on in the first lockdown, when our local arts venue’s open mic nights had gone online, one participant made a semi-professional music video for a song with the refrain “everyone’s got the same jokes.”

That’s how I reacted to The Fell: baking bread and biscuits, a family catch-up on Zoom, repainting and clearouts, even obsessive hand-washing … the references were worn out well before a draft was finished. Ironic though it may seem, I feel like I’ve found more cogent commentary about our present moment from Moss’s historical work. Yet I’ve read all of her fiction and would still list her among my favourite contemporary writers. Aspiring creative writers could approach the Summerwater/The Fell duology as a masterclass in perspective, voice and concise plotting. But I hope for something new from her next book.

[180 pages]

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

 

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17 responses

  1. We’re very much on the same page with this one! It was weird how dated it felt. I think if it had come out in five years’ time, it would have felt far enough removed, but as you say, it’s kind of too late/too early.

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    1. It will be so interesting to see how it survives as a period piece.

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  2. I really enjoyed Ghost Wall and Summerwater, so looking forward to reading The Fell. I recently read another book set in lockdown but I thought it worked in that setting. We shall see!

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    1. If you loved Summerwater, you should enjoy this, too — it’s very much a case of more of the same! What was the other lockdown book you read?

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  3. I was in two minds about this. I found the Covid stuff really off putting a little dated and Kate’s accident and the fall-out from it a bit soapy, but she writes so well and draws out really interesting themes. In the end I enjoyed it.

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    1. I enjoyed it a little more than Summerwater but was disappointed that she didn’t try anything new with it.

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  4. […] The Fell by Sarah Moss (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]

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  5. Well, let’s see. I’ve just been given it, so it’s making its way to the top of the pile.

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    1. Well, the Peak District location will appeal, I’m sure. I don’t have a handle on your fiction tastes, so I can’t predict whether you’ll get on with it or not. In any case, it’s only a sparse 180 pages.

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  6. I read Ghost Wall for NovNov last year and plan to read more of her work at some point. It’s likely to be her novellas since they’re shorter and I liked Ghost Wall so much. What you have to say about the Covid stuff feeling dated is interesting. I was just reading a Twitter thread about it being too soon to be writing about covid – the authors commenting mostly agreed we’re not far enough removed from it yet. Sounds like they might be right. I will probably read it anyway, though!

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    1. I remember when the first ‘Trump novels’ started coming out in c. 2018 and I thought, is anyone going to want to read those?! I sort of feel the same way with this one. Sarah Hall bypassed the issue in Burntcoat by making up her own virus, so although she was still writing about pandemic fear and lockdown loneliness, the details won’t date as badly. By contrast, I’ve really enjoyed some of the Covid nonfiction I’ve read: diaries by doctors, or ordinary people.

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      1. I wonder how the doctors even have the time to write about it yet!

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  7. How handy that she does a novella regularly so you can read it for this Month! She never really appeals to me anyway and she’s just the writer I would expect to do a Covid novel, somehow, I do think they have got a bit samey, from what I’ve been reading (I’ve read two, I think, and then it’s popped up in a couple of other reads, but only nonfic, I think) and could now benefit from some distance.

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    1. I had to write magazine summaries of two more Covid novels this week, maybe not out in the UK yet but probably coming soon, by Louise Erdrich and Gary Shteyngart. It’s all too much!

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  8. She’s my next backlist project (I’m in her NF now) so I’m not properly reading here as I seem to have mostly escaped all the talk of The Fell (which isn’t due in the US until March). What I loved about The Tidal Wall was how she played with structure and voice and readers’ assumptions, and I’m curious to see how those elements might arise in other works of hers.

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    1. I’ve only ever read her Iceland travel memoir, of the nonfiction (the rest seems more academically geared, and isn’t readily available here). You’ve blended two titles there! The Tidal Zone is brilliant – I reviewed it as part of my Wellcome Book Prize coverage, so it has a special place in my affection – and Ghost Wall was another great read. Not sure which one you meant, but both are well worth reading. I picked up Night Waking free from a neighbour to reread sometime.

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