Tag Archives: holidays

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

To create her compelling fiction Sarah Moss places her characters out of their usual location, often on holiday. The characters are tested, by each other and by the environment and having wound them up she sits back and lets the drama unfold. This is something of a pattern in her books and it is very effective.

In Summerwater the characters are staying in log cabins in a holiday park in Scotland beside a loch. It is summer and it should be beautiful, but it is raining. It is raining so much that it feels like the end of the world. They have no phone signals and no nearby shops. The rain and the random selection of guests at the holiday park isolate the cabins’ occupants from each other.

Summerwater

We begin with the rain.

the sounds of blood and air

Light seeps over the water, through the branches. The sky is lying on the loch, filling the trees, heavy in the spaces between the pine needles, settling between the blades of grass and mottling the pebbles on the beach. Although there is no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is falling; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.
You would notice soon enough, if it stopped. (1)

Short interludes, such as this one, separate the chapters. But pause a moment before getting into the story to notice the quality of the writing, the observation that rain in these circumstances gets everywhere and distorts the landscape (the sky is lying on the loch … no distance between cloud and land) and feels visceral. 

The occupants of the log cabins emerge into the day slowly, for what is there to do? Justine takes an early morning run. As she creeps out of the cabin, leaving husband and children sleeping, we learn about her frustrations, the lack of money, the lack of opportunities for families like hers. Her observations about the other occupants of the holiday cabins are revealed, including the Rumanians who held another loud party the previous night.

We meet a young lad who goes kayaking and ventures out on the loch and whose trip nearly ends in disaster. He does not tell his parents. A young teenage girl climbs out of her bedroom window to find a phone signal or to visit the ex-soldier in his tent. Here she is as she escapes from her parents for a while.

She goes along the side of the gravel track, not that anyone would hear her footsteps over the weather, past the cabin with the sad woman who never goes out and the two kids. They’re still having their tea, and the scene reminds her of her old Playmobil dolls’ house, the stiff-jointed figures you could arrange around a green plastic table, the tiny plastic cutlery Mum was always telling her not to lose. The rain is seeping through her leggings and Alex’s hoody is beginning to cling to her hands at the cuffs. (150)

A couple spend most of the day in bed as they pursue his ambition of simultaneous orgasms. An older man, with his increasingly disabled wife takes her for a drive. He muses upon the happy times they had in the park when the holidaymakers owned their own cabins and came every year, providing consistency and friendship. Those times have long gone, and he must take care of his wife in the face of the limitations of the cabin, the park and the weather.

There are nearly middle-aged women who, like Justine, are finding life hard, and this cheap holiday is no holiday for them. Children are bored. The men are bored. Only the Rumanians appear to be enjoying themselves, although some of the holidaymakers think they might be Bulgarians and other that they might be Russians. What’s more, they appear to have phone connections, for as evening arrives so do visitors with drink and music and another party starts.

Here is a nightmare scenario: rain all day, nothing to do, nothing to see except your neighbours, the only thing to think about is your sad life and then loud music at night prevents sleep. Resentment is building and the partygoers are clearly going to be the object of judgements and aggressions that are building up. The men decide to go and ask the Rumanians, or Bulgarians or Russians, or Shit-chenkos, (according to one family) to turn the sound down. 

Watching from the neighbouring cabin the little girl see what happens when they knock on the Rumanians’ door.

The Shit-chenko woman steps back into the cabin and a man comes out with two bottles dangling from between his fingers and nods and hands one to Dad and one to the other dad, and then all of them go inside. (193)

By now the tension is very high and the novel’s resolution unfurls very fast, rather surprisingly and very badly. The little girl witnesses the events. She sees the tragedy, but also the community that is suddenly created in response. 

Sarah Moss writes so well, so succinctly, with detailed observations and, in this novel, fully inhabiting the range of characters in the cabins. 

Observing the way we subtly edit ourselves and one another – the limits that puts on us, as well as the strengths it creates – is Moss’s metier. [Melissa Harrison in a review in the Guardian in August 2020]

It is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2020) Picador. 202pp. A paperback version is available.

Related post about books by Sarah Moss on Bookword

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011) in a post of two short reviews

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Names for the Sea: strangers in Iceland (2012) in a post called Bookword in Iceland

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

Do Refugees need Holidays?

Freedom from Torture runs a Holiday Hosting scheme. The organisation supports refugees who have suffered torture. Why would people who have been tortured need a holiday? Isn’t every day a holiday if they are now free? Of course not. The effects, physical, emotional, familial, even economic are long-lasting. The scheme has given help to victims of torture to come to terms with what has happened to them.

This is the third of my posts in support of Freedom from Torture, asking readers to support my walking/blogging challenge. More details can be found by clicking on the Challenge page link above the picture. And the link to my Just Giving page for your donation is here.

Meet Gill and Tim

Gill and Tim provided holidays for refugees for several years. I met Gill and Tim while we were training as befrienders for young unaccompanied refugees with FFT several years ago. They were no longer offering holidays but supporting refugees through befriending. I asked them if I could use their experiences of offering holidays for my FFT challenge, and they kindly agreed.

299-evil-cr-cover

I was delighted that it all started with a book. They began offering holidays in their home because they had read An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992). Keenan describes his imprisonment in Beirut as a hostage, and how he survived in part because of his friendship with another hostage John McCarthy. Impressed by the book, when they received a request for donations signed by John McCarthy, Gill and Tim began to support the charity and it developed into offering holidays. John McCarthy is a patron of FfT (then called the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture).

What did their guests get out of it?

At that time many refugees rarely got out of London. The holiday scheme offered a week in ordinary homes. Some of their guests had never been inside a British home before, still less stayed in a British home. Gill and Tim were living on Merseyside amidst pinewoods and sand dunes and they therefore also offered a different aspect of Britain to their guests.

In their home the guests were able to relax. Some got practical help, like the Iranian couple who were living in a B&B and so unable to open a bank account. Gill went with the wife to all the banks on her high street to try to persuade them to take on these guests as clients. Although they were turned down by every bank, the wife was later successful. She told Gill she had used the words she had heard Gill use to make her case.

Others found outlets for their feelings. Gill told me about a young man from Afghanistan who was in a tearful state when he arrived. He needed to tell his story, which was horrific as he had seen his family killed by the Taliban. In the garden a tree had been felled and Tim invited their guest to help chop up the tree. An axe was found and the tree was despatched. A therapeutic tree chop.

Another guest became very close to her hosts, to the extent of becoming the nanny to their grandchildren. The nanny’s children have in turn trained as a doctor and a pharmacologist.

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Gill and Tim in Kyoto

Some difficulties

Sometimes it was not possible to do anything more than just be there for their visitors, Gill told me. There were limits to what they could do to help the refugees with their problems, some were beyond their powers or without solutions.

Some difficulties were hard to negotiate, like the different levels of faith and significance of religion and belief.

Bookish Connections

I asked Gill and Tim for their bookish connections. Their list started with An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (1992), and they had four more recommendations.

  • What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006) A true story of a boy who was separated from his family in Sudan’s civil war and his journey through simply horrendous situations, till he reached America
  • The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007) The fictional story of Lev who arrives at Victoria Coach station from somewhere in East Europe, where he was unable to support his wife and daughter and we share in the highs and lows of his attempt to make a new life in London.
  • A Long Way Gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ismael Beah (2007) The true story of a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990s during the violent civil war. Taken as a boy soldier he transforms into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine that the army makes readily available. But a few years later when agents from the United Nations pulled him out of the army and placed him in a rehabilitation centre. Anger and hate slowly faded away, he abandons violence, he takes it upon himself to speak for the voiceless- -other children trying to survive amidst war. A powerful book.
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) In this novel, Harri, an 11-year old Ghanaian boy arrives in the UK, with his mother and sister, leaving behind other members of his family. They move into a highrise flat in south London where they are among many immigrants, the alcoholics, dealers, petty criminals and teenage members of the Dell Farm Crew gang. Harri and a friend see a boy killed on the estate and they set about to find the identity of the murderer. Harri talks to a pigeon who visits him on his balcony. Harri is an endearing 11 year old and a vivid life is portrayed through his lively, funny, innocent curiosity, though there is an air of menace overlying the story.

What matters?

When I invited Gill and Tim to talk about the holiday scheme I expected to hear good things, but I was struck with how the important thing was the human connections they made. Their guests were people who had suffered, and to whom they offered generous connections. This to me is the best of humanity. And I loved that it emerged that writing had played its part in this process, launching them into it and helping them understand something of the suffering of their guests.

Thank you Gill and Tim for your help in writing this post.

My walk and challenge

254 FFTlogo

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the third post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

November walk

Danbury Down, November 2016

Danbury Down, November 2016

The third walk was about 10km (6+ miles). I planned to walk home from Newton Abbot, but the bus I found on-linefor Sunday travel didn’t exist. In the end I walked in a loop around the equestrian countryside. There were two landmarks: the iron age fort of Denbury Down, seen from a different perspective than my usual view, and HM Prison Channings Wood, where visitors were waiting.

channings-wood

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The fourth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-December

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Freedom from Torture Challenge