I had no intention of reading a pandemic novel having had enough of it in real life then Sarah Moss’ The Fell was announced, a sweet surprise as Summerwater was published less than eighteen months ago. Just as Summerwater spans a single day in the lives of a group of holidaymakers in Scotland, The Fell takes place over a single night during last year’s November lockdown when Kate breaks quarantine desperate to be outside.
She won’t be long, really she won’t, only a sip of outside, fast up the lane and over the fields, just a little way up the stone path for a quick greeting to the fells
Kate and her son, Matt, live next door to Alice in a limestone terraced house in the Peak district. They’ve looked out for her through the pandemic knowing that she’s shielding, her immune system compromised by chemotherapy, but now they’re social isolating. Kate is restless, cleaning and tidying the house to within an inch of its life while Matt does his homework and games with his best friend. All this time alone together is a little too intimate for a mother and her teenage son. Kate has far too much time to spend worrying about money and rehearsing her many mistakes to herself, from her lazy schooldays to the violent relationship escaped by marrying a kind man she didn’t love. She can stand it no longer. Alice spots Kate leaving the house at sunset, pack on her back, heading up to the fells. She’s left her phone behind, not told Matt where she’s gone, intending to return before long but then she falls and a long night of worry, regret and fear begins.
Maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human, maybe she’s had her last hug, handshake, air-kiss
Like Summerwater, The Fell’s narrative flits in and out of its characters’ heads as the night unfolds. It’s the perfect device for a lockdown novel, when many of us – some more than others – spent so much time in our own heads. Each character’s voice is clear and distinct – Alice, constantly reminding herself of her privilege as a well-off pensioner when she lapses into self-pity, fretting about Matt left on his own with just the cat; Kate wondering how she’s going to make ends meet, if she’ll ever sing again at the pub while Rob, the mountain rescue volunteer, thinks about his daughter who seems incapable of considering anyone but herself. Set before the vaccination programme, The Fell‘s characters are all wondering when this will end, or if it will. Moss captures it all beautifully: several times I had a shock of recognition thinking I’d had exactly the same thought myself. Loneliness, financial insecurities, mental health, domestic violence are all subtly woven through this brief novella along with the background hum of climate change. Another smartly turned out piece of fiction for Moss fans to savour: a lockdown rather than a pandemic novel.
Picador: London 9781529083224 160 pages Hardback