Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 10, 2020

Summerwater, by Sarah Moss

Well, this was a disappointment.  Not a dreadful, crushing disappointment, more of a wet weekend sort of a disappointment and a mild irritation that it didn’t meet my expectations and I could have spent my time reading something more interesting.  After all, if I hear about a book at the Edinburgh Festival, the first and probably only time I’ll get to “attend”, thanks to Covid and the digital pivot, I expect it to be a really good book…

Instead it turned out to be tiresome.  A succession of stream-of-consciousness narrators reveal themselves to be a bunch of narcissistic people on holiday in a dreary set of cabins somewhere in Scotland where it rains incessantly.   They’re all bored and fed-up, and before long I was as well, because their thoughts reveal them to be rather dull people. One of them goes running in the rain; one of them thinks all kinds of mundane thoughts while having sex with her husband; one of them can’t think of anything to do when her husband takes the kids out to give her a break; two of them are sulky teenagers; and one of them is a spiteful little girl who is mean to another little girl who happens to be Other, at least as far as these unhappy campers are concerned.

One way or another, all of them put themselves at risk, but in the end it’s the Ukrainians who play loud music and annoy everybody else who come a cropper.  Well, more than that, but I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone else who labours through this book in hope of some kind of climax.

There are some good aspects of the novel.  The writing is effective in showcasing the different voices and the range of hidden emotions.  There is resentment, boredom, guilt, distractibility, and failure to engage in intimacy.  Moss depicts awareness of looming dementia both felt and observed, failed ambition, stupidity and selfishness.  But it’s not illuminating.  We all know that there are people like this. An author needs more than that to make an absorbing novel.

Some reviewers make a lot out of the Ukrainians being cast as interlopers as if that makes all the others racist.  But from the outset these people behave selfishly.  They play very loud music till all hours of the morning.  This is inconsiderate behaviour that impacts on the wellbeing of neighbours anywhere, but in a peaceful place where the only sounds should be the sounds of nature, it spoils the ambience for everyone.  In the daytime, because it’s raining, and because there are the other sounds of daytime living, well, maybe fair enough though IMO it’s still un-neighbourly to inflict your choice of music on others outside your house.  But at night, when everyone’s trying to sleep, especially the families with small children, it’s really mean.  Most people would feel hostile towards such behaviour, regardless of the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

I was expecting some kind of climate-change-induced natural disaster to tidy these disparate elements into a whole.  One of the teenagers makes gloomy prognostications about climate change so it was on the author’s mind, and mine.  Plus, the title is an allusion to William Watson’s The Ballad of Semerwater which apparently derives from a legend in which the waters of a lake rise up and drown a village.  The only survivors are those who welcomed a stranger, and this fed into the possibility that Brexiteers might sink beneath the waves while refusing help from the pesky Ukrainians.  A deluge; a landslide; one of the cabins collapsing under the torrential rain so that the others have to take the occupants in?  But no, that’s not what happens.

Ah well.

To see a more complimentary review, see Melissa Harrison at The Guardian or John Boyne at the Irish Times.

Author: Sarah Moss
Title: Summerwater
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2020
ISBN: 9781529063189, pbk., 200 pages
Source: Bayside Library



  1. LOL! I’m sorry you were disappointed but your review did make me laugh. I expect I would have had as little patience with these characters as you did!


  2. Oh, dear, this really wasn’t to your taste, was it? I did enjoy all the different voices, all very recognisable (maybe I just know grumpy people), and found the elderly couple quite touching (the description of dementia), but yes, on the whole, it did not quite live up to my expectations and the ending felt terribly rushed. I know Sarah Moss can write much better than that.


    • Hi Marina, I’ve read Bodies of Light, and that didn’t quite hit the mark for me either, but I have this feeling that there’s a book there somewhere that is really good and the others are just a case of writing to the schedule that publishers demand of popular authors. What would you recommend?


      • Bodies of Light and Signs of Lost Children were two of my favourites of hers, but I’m probably the only one who really, really liked Night Waking, because I felt it described my own life. The Ghost Wall is short but a lot more powerful than Summerwater.


        • Thanks, Marina, I will look out for those at my library.


  3. I’m sorry this didn’t work for you – I enjoyed it, although not as much as Ghost Wall. I think Moss is excellent at different narrative voices, particularly teenagers and she is always spot on when exploring motherhood. I agree, the ending did feel rushed though.


    • Yes, I grant that she’s good at voices (and I did in my review) but ultimately, I found myself thinking, so what? Moaning mothers and sulky teenagers, grumpy old men… if characters like this are not in the service of some interesting kind of bigger picture, all I can do is breathe a sigh of relief that I don’t have people like that in my life and move on.


  4. What a shame, I had really high expectations of this! It’s probably a good idea that they’ve been moderated somewhat :-)


  5. I am glad to read about a disappointing book so I won’t go out looking for it.🤠 I am having a hard time finding a book that grabs me and pulls me in. I will keep trying. Maybe it is the book, maybe it is me. But, yawn. Having a more interesting time watching Australian news programs this week!!🐧⚘🍷🌷


  6. That is a shame, it has such a lovely cover too!


  7. I get your sentiments Lisa. Must say am oh so bored by these types of folk too. Maybe there are more of them than I’d like to believe hence your commentary.


    • You know, I remember when my house was full of teenage boys, and they were a delight to have around. Full of energy and enthusiasm and plans to do great things and improve the world. And self-reliant, able to amuse themselves!


  8. […] Summerwater by Sarah Moss (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]


  9. […] Summerwater by Sarah Moss reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers […]


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