I don’t know how wise it is to write while gob-smacked by a book, but I’m doing it anyway. Sarah Moss. The Fell. My first pandemic lockdown novel. I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did because it’s great, or because I think we’re starved to have some articulated understanding of what we’ve experienced. (Only time will tell, so I’ll have to revisit The Fell when my year-end review comes ’round.) Or maybe I was engrossed and in awe of Moss’s novel? novella? (it’s really quite short) because I’m skittish around litfic, with its dreaded poshy reviewers’ “lyrical” epithet (tells me to stay far, far away). I adore narratives of ideas, meaty with meaning and demanding thought over feeling; hence, not a fan of lyrical…please, no description. No wonder I enjoyed Moss as much as I did and no wonder I’m ordering her entire back-list because now, I have to read all the Mosses.
So. The Fell. Lockdown 2020 in England’s Peak District: the “fell,” backdrop to the characters’ lives, at least until one of them enters it and another follows. Rob, whom we meet in the first chapter, a divorced dad with an angry, snarky daughter upset when he leaves on a call. Is he a doctor? Moss doesn’t tell, not yet. Sixteen-year-old Matt who lives with single mother Kate, in precarious financial circumstances; their neighbour, Alice, a comfortably-off widow with breast cancer. Sounds mundane and it is: the circumstances of the characters’ lives. They’re in lock-down: Alice hasn’t left her house in weeks; Matt and Kate help out with groceries and meds, but now Kate has to isolate because she came into contact with someone with covid. Kate can’t stand being “locked up”, even for the requisite weeks; she suffers and, stupidly sets off at dusk to walk the fell…it’s empty anyway, she won’t come into contact with anyone. Alice sees her leave. Kate tumbles and is badly injured. Night approaches and her position is, at best, precarious; at worst, fatal. That’s it, them’s the “happenings”. What drives the narrative (and I was so anxious reading it, hold-my-breath anxious) are the characters’ inner worlds.
Which are also mundane, yet rich and gripping. These characters come alive and I cared about them. I didn’t always understand them, Kate not at all, but I cared. That’s not an easy feat, not when much contemporary fiction is distancing (no pun intended), rich in irony and remoteness. But maybe that’s what the lock-downs have wrought: the end of that remoteness, maybe we’ve had enough of that, thank you very much.
As for those “inner worlds”, they’re prosaic and compelling. Alice, pondering her isolation, not liking it, but not hating it, thinking about her family, what she likes (cookies and her electric blanket, a cheerful Mrs. Dalloway is our Alice), how she misses going down to the shops. Matt, typical bored teen, but not sullen, a good boy; stuck at home, he does his share. Kate, desperate and needy to be out in nature (her garden isn’t enough, too tame, I suppose), suffocated by the lock-down (I didn’t get Kate at all; I enjoyed the lock-down, except for the terror-of-dying part, and we were not merely allowed, but encouraged, to walk); she’s barely responsible, worked as a waitress, furloughed now, financially strapped. She takes off and falls. When she doesn’t return: Alice is worried about Matt, Matt is worried out of his mind for his mother; Alice worries about Kate “out there”. Kate is injured so badly she hallucinates a conversation with a Raven (he quoth “never more”, quite). Rob, with his sullen almost-teen back home…is one of the search and rescue team who look for Kate all night.
Moss doesn’t make style paramount (how refreshing) and infuses her narrative with urgent prose; her characters’ inner worlds, petty, prosaic, or profound, their musings come fast and furious in words that tumble and jumble like water over rocks. Their words are necessary to them, however, and with deceptive skill, are not contrived to be “profound”. Yet Moss’s contrivance is just that, a contrivance that engulfs us so that we’re unaware of being taken by it. It was interesting how difficult it was to find a passage to highlight and quote, an exercise born of my now-out-of-date “new” criticism” training (what can I say, I’m old). It didn’t work here. I had to take in the whole and think about it: there weren’t any neat meaning-infused passages of heightened language. Maybe one and not particularly “meaning-infused”, not really; it’s a fulcrum to the narrative: a marker to someone present and then, absent; to something that happened before and is now over. Kate was here and now, she’s not:
The raven flies down the valley. It’s hours yet, till sunrise. Sheep rest where their seed, breed and generation have worn hollows in the peat, lay their dreaming heads where past sheep have lain theirs. The lovely hares sleep where the long grass folds over them. No burrows, no burial. The Saukin Stone dries in the wind. Though the stone’s feet are planted deep in the rivulets, in the bodies of trees a thousand years dead, its face takes the weather, gazes eyeless over heather and bog. Roots reach deep, bide their time. Spring will come.
That stone, not Ozymandias, man-made and despairing, but cyclical time, “seed, breed and generation,” an abiding indifference, not malevolent (Moss isn’t Hardy, thank goodness), simply a place devoid of human consciousness. (It’s the novel’s sole quiet moment, when human voices stop.) In nature, Moss identifies the promise of spring and inevitability of death: she leaves her characters, one by one, with an echo of the same; for some, the promise of spring; for others, an ending. As her final line says, “Life, then, to be lived, somehow.”
A review e-copy was provided by the publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The Fell was published on March 1st and may be readily found at your preferred vendor.