No Torches, No Pitchforks

Sarah Moss, The Fell

Picador, 192pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781529083224

reviewed by Gary Kaill

There is a scene quite early in Sarah Moss’s 2009 debut novel Cold Earth that works as a telling moment — as a clue to the motivations of the narrator at that point, Ruth, but also, perhaps more importantly, as to the emerging and eventual moral design of Moss’s work. Ruth, along with a group of five other archaeologists, is excavating a remote Viking settlement. A parallel narrative, which gradually reveals the horrors that caused those original inhabitants to leave their homes, unseats the reader from the off, but the thrum of dread is fed not so much by the convergence of past and present, but by the weight of the troubles borne by the characters themselves.

As the group’s internet connection begins to fail, and snatched reports of a growing global pandemic fuels their anxiety, Moss, offering the reader each character’s perspective in turn, unpicks their fractured histories. They might well, by necessity, have travelled light to this frosty outpost but between them, as they will find to their cost, they’ve brought enough baggage to sink a ship. The violence that enters the camp is seeded in those initial, nervy interactions; this is a bonding exercise with the adhesive qualities of rainwater. Ruth in particular is riven by a profound form of grief: the loss of her boyfriend James in the most harrowing of circumstances. She addresses her anger internally, and to him: ‘I thought I might look at the ice and somehow feel better, be free of my widow’s hood, but the healing power of natural beauty turns out to be one of those popular myths.’ She goes on: ‘The pursuit of happiness is a right, not a responsibility.’

The expectation that one shouldn’t have to fight to find a sense of comfort and well-being in the world finds voice once again in The Fell, forcefully opined by its central character, Kate. Made miserable by months of lockdown, shortly before she sets off on a hill walk that will lead to near-tragic consequences, she deliberates at length. Her decision, in the end, is influenced primarily by her frustration with a government pointedly short on empathy: ‘if the people in charge had any sense they’d be setting limits on how many hours you can spend inside’.

The Fell was written as the Coronavirus spiralled out of control in 2020. ‘Contagion is one of the oldest stories,’ Moss said when the book was announced earlier this year, ‘but our fears of each other and for each other have been remade in the last year.’ Once again, fear of the world being pulled apart by an untameable catastrophe is her plot’s motor. Set in a small village in the Peak District during the UK lockdown of November 2020, the book’s narrative is condensed to a single day, as Kate, a furloughed cafe worker, sets off for respite in the surrounding hills. In an intimate third-person, we see her testing her resolve and the limits of official guidance (‘She wishes sometimes you could just sign a disclaimer, like a Do Not Resuscitate order, promising that if you get sick you won’t go to hospital. . .’) before being lulled by the promise of the land.

There’ll be wind through the sleeping winter heather, and the bracken bright brown and the streams running cold and clear, the grass in the bogs grey now and lying long in the pools and no scent on the wind, just winter, everything biding its time, gathering strength underground, sleeping and waiting for the darkest days, the hinge of the year and then the return of the light.

Kate, like Ruth before her, is all too aware of the inherent cruelty that accompanies most accepted notions of responsibility. In just a few weeks of sticking to the rules, her own sense of isolation has pushed her to breaking point. Her teenage son Matt has adopted a more, well, teenage view of the whole thing, more bored than truly troubled. Thoughtful and modest (the prospect of university is casually dismissed: ‘he’s probably not clever enough anyway’) he is vaguely irritated by his mother’s aversion to his video-gaming, but that doesn’t affect his dedication to household chores, his concern with the subtle change in Kate’s tidiness, the relatively few clothes piled up ‘not clean enough to put away and not dirty enough to wash’. He is not to know, until it is too late, what his mother’s unexpected absence means.

It is their elderly, widowed neighbour Alice who sees Kate begin her fateful expedition. ‘I should stop her, Alice thinks, she’s breaking the law, but Kate’s moving fast and Alice just stands there, cheek to cheek with her window, watching.’ Moss is especially good at capturing the ludicrous inadequacy of the protocols and the messaging that defined those 2020 lockdowns — how the communication of those guidelines began and continued in the most cavalier and disrespectful fashion. This is a story of unremarkable lives, placed under strain by both bad luck, and ineffective and corrupt politics, and the quite remarkable things those circumstances cause the people involved to have to do.

In that sense, The Fell operates in concert with its predecessor, Summerwater, which gave voice with similar intimacy to the viewpoints of a larger cast of characters. Yet this interiority operates here within a different narrative framework. With Summerwater, and the quietly simmering confrontations on a Scottish caravan park that formed the basis of its plot, its explosive outcome remained satisfyingly out of sight, almost impossible to predict. The Fell’s (extremely, by default) limited number of outcomes are fixed from the start. Still, while the book might be light on story, it demonstrates once again Moss’s natural gift for storytelling. Her subject matter could so easily limit the imaginative impulse, but Moss swerves delivering her story as documentary by fashioning a unique and compelling form of jeopardy.

In effect, with a mere three characters on stage, she places the characters in conflict with themselves: a delicate tactic that works exceptionally well. Alice, Kate and Matt occupy their — often lengthy — scenes entirely alone; their internal arguments, and counter-arguments, as they mull over their own desperate circumstances, are rarely less than compelling. Even a chapter in which Alice has a difficult Zoom call with her daughter and her grandchildren serves to turn our understanding of isolation on its head — the foundations of their estrangement were clearly laid long before COVID-19 got in the way.

And so The Fell is a ‘political’ novel only in so much as Moss displays concern with symptom rather than cause. How we got here, how Kate became quite so desperate to re-shape the unremitting sameness of the days and weeks, is for you to ponder, she seems to be saying. She is too subtle and generous a writer to bog her characters down with limp rhetoric: no torches here, no pitchforks. No one is drawn so crudely as let slip a ‘Fuck Boris’ under their breath. But, yes, the characters have their say (there is a raft of Conservative negligence and ill-informed policymaking referenced here — a hotline for reporting your transgressing neighbours, anyone?) and their frustration is handled lightly. Still, feel free to punch the air as Kate, surveying the four walls that have become little less than a prison muses on the predictable enough call for the UK to demonstrate its Blitz spirit: ‘It’s a stupid comparison, this isn’t aerial bombardment and you have to resist the English passion for imagining ourselves always in World War Two’. Um, bravo.

Even though it operates, to some degree, as an ersatz thriller, The Fell is not quite as wholly involving as its pandemic-concerned predecessor or 2011’s The Tidal Zone: a more fully realised work of fiction and, arguably, Moss’s best work to date. Perhaps The Fell’s overwhelming subject matter and its most sobering concern, serves as both creative impulse and thematic counterweight; kudos, certainly, to any writer who dares so quickly to begin to query the impact of COVID-19 on their world.

Fittingly, the book’s deeply moving ending serves to frame it as a lament rather than a rallying call. This eloquent and humanist discourse is no less potent for that. But its real strength lies in how seamlessly it grants the unspeakably mundane a sense of grandeur, is gracious enough to lend poetry to the innately ugly. When Kate dismisses ‘out of town shopping centres but they’re not centres of anything, sores festering in the skin folds of roundabouts and motorway junctions’, or Alice mocks the juvenile jargon of the day (‘Shielding, they call it, silly military metaphors’), The Fell confirms itself as a work in possession of a robust and admirable moral certainty.

Gary Kaill writes about literature and music, as well as co-editing the online literary journal Lunate Fiction. He lives in Manchester.