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.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Eowyn Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. If you have read Ivey’s 2012 debut, The Snow Child, you’ll remark once again on her skill in bringing the bleak beauty of Alaska to life on the page and blending magic realism and folktales with a nonetheless realistic view of history.
In March 1885 Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester sets out with a small team – including brash Sergeant Bradley Tillman, melancholy photographer Lieutenant Andrew Pruitt, native guides, and Samuelson, a trapper who serves as a go-between – to navigate a previously unmapped portion of Alaska. Back at Vancouver Barracks he’s left his wife of four months, Sophie. Bold and curious, she intended to travel into Alaska with Allen until she learned she was pregnant. Now she passes the months of her confinement – and raises eyebrows among the military wives – by pursuing her amateur hobbies of birdwatching and photography.
Through alternating passages from journals by Allen and Sophie, Ivey contrasts the big adventures of surveying new territory with the smaller adventures of domestic life. Along their perilous journey Allen and his men encounter many legends and incidents they cannot explain: shape-shifters, like the women who morph into flocks of geese or the shaman who takes the form of a half-lame raven; a baby born out of a tree trunk; and a prehistoric creature that guards a lake. As Allen writes in a letter to Sophie towards the end of his journey:
I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living and & dead. It has been a strange experience indeed. All that I have taken for granted, of what is real & true, has been called into question.
A framing story sets the historical narrative in the context of the present day: Walter Forrester has sent his great-uncle Allen’s letters and journal to a small Alaska museum for safekeeping. Initially the young curator, Joshua Sloan, is annoyed at the unwanted donation and the extra work it creates for him, but gradually – right alongside the novel’s readers – he starts to be sucked into the story the documents reveal. Through their correspondence, Josh and Walt develop a touching friendship despite their differences.
Ivey fits the pieces of her epistolary together in a sophisticated manner and makes you care about each of the characters. Sophie and Pruitt, especially, have traumatic backstories that help you understand their behavior. Sophie reminded me most of Meridian Wallace in Elizabeth J. Church’s The Atomic Weight of Love – both are self-taught scientists with a deep love for birds and a determination to live interesting lives even if others disapprove. The novel also brings to mind Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place in that it skips back and forth in time and intersperses a central narrative with other documents, including an auction catalogue of relevant objects.
I found Sophie’s voice instantly more engaging than Allen’s shorthand-like style, and it took me a while – maybe 60–80 pages – to warm up to the storyline and characters. I would have appreciated an Author’s Note at the end of the book explaining what, if anything, was based on a true story and which documents are authentic. (As it is, I assume that all the characters are fictional but the explorers’ journey is based on the historical record.) Nonetheless, I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
With thanks to Katie Brown at Tinder Press for the free review copy.