This book, had I not already been attracted by its premise, would have jumped into my hands during any bookshop crawl. Such an attractive sleeve, but the endpapers are a masterstroke. So evocative of a Scottish summer’s day trapped inside by the weather!
Such is the experience of the families holidaying in a dilapidated Scottish cabin park on the banks of bonny Loch Lomond – except the bonniness is hard to see, given the 24-hour drenching that is ahead. It is a day when they are in effective lockdown, a boring day in which activity is curtailed, and yet the interior worlds of the 12 narrators are anything but boring.
“If normal life isn’t worth writing about”, said Moss at her recent EIBF event “then those normal lives aren’t worth living.” So with perception, masterly authenticity of voice and droll wit, Moss captures that day from 12 points-of-view: a child, surly, occassionally foul-mouthed teenagers, a young couple, mums, dads, the middle aged “learning to live comfortably with disappointment”, the retired living with their memories or perhaps the loss of them. She captures too their resentments: the young resent the old, the old resent the young, the Scottish resent the English (though not necessarily the English holidaying at the park). They all resent the outsiders.
For there is another family at the camp, a family of Eastern Europeans. No one is exactly sure of their origins. The single mother and child are accused at various times of being Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians. (They actually come from Ukraine.) What everyone knows is that they don’t belong and have no regard for their fellow vacationers. The little girl is not dressed adequately for the weather. Their music is always far too loud. They are, in fact, a damned nuisance.
Moss explained that at the time of writing “this rainy thing”, she was contemplating the divisions within our society, so acute in this Brexit age that it is often impossible to get families gathered for a meal. She wanted to explore whether humanity still has enough in common to respond to an emergency. (A question that stands tall during the COVID age!)
That there will be an emergency is signposted with momentary flashes of tension. The foreign child is bullied – the younger kids vocalising aggressions adults speak behind closed doors. There is an abandoned child’s shoe on the edge of the lake. The young kayaker, overconfident in his abilities, almost comes to grief. (This last incident set my blood pressure racing.) All of which points towards something nasty on the horizon.
At one point Moss described the novel as “an anthropologist’s view of family life”. Her characters are living within a system, as is the Scottish countryside in which they are located. Interwoven with the human concerns are lyrical vignettes of the natural world, of animals, trees, of liquids, rain, water. Changing weather patterns are having a negative impact. “Under the hedges, in the hollows of small trees, birds droop and wilt, grounded, waiting. Small creatures in their burrows nose the air and stay hungry. There will be deaths by morning.” A pattern that the human inhabitants of this landscape cannot sidestep.
Moss’s previously novels have been a bit hit or miss with me. Summerwater is a resounding hit. Not to jinx it but I feel prizes beckon. I’ll start the run with the most in-a-nutshell phrase of the year. I’ll just leave it here. “Scottish sky… better at obscenity than any human voice.”