The Fell by Sarah Moss: ‘Life, then, to be lived, somehow’

Cover image for The Fell by Sarah MossI 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

25 thoughts on “The Fell by Sarah Moss: ‘Life, then, to be lived, somehow’”

  1. I really enjoy Sarah Moss but like you wasn’t sure I needed a pandemic novel right now… This does sound so well done though, capturing the insular nature of the enforced isolation. You’ve definitely tempted me, and a lockdown novel rather than a pandemic novel sounds doable!

    1. Definitely lockdown rather than pandemic! I read Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat which was also superb but much more in the latter category. Moss captures that introspection and desperate need to escape so well.

  2. Impatient to read this one! Although I liked Summerwater, I felt it was a bit too brief and ended abruptly, but maybe this subject in the The Fell is more suited to brevity.

  3. I’ve never read anything by Sarah Moss but I’ve seen some great reviews of this, including yours, so it might have to go on my shopping list. It only being 160 pages appeals too. I need a break from 400 pages plus books I think!

  4. I’m a big fan of Sarah Moss and read this last week. I had some reservations because I think a lot of it felt ‘too soon’ but she drew out some really interesting themes about risk, guilt and isolation that I found really interesting in the end. To be honest, I would have loved a whole book of Alice…

  5. This sounds excellent but after living in my own head for over a year due to our long strict lockdown, I’m just not ready to read about it yet. Perhaps in time.

    1. Probably wise! I always felt superstitious about referring to our own restrictions as lockdown. We were allowed to go out for exercise which kept me sane. You have my sympathy.

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  7. I feel a bit “too soon” about this one, too, and I don’t much like the idea of most of her novels, however there’s something about this one which keeps drawing my attention again and again. Ask me again in a year!

  8. This sounds great, I have added both this and Summerwater to my wishlist. I hadn’t really wanted to read a pandemic novel either, but there’s a lot about this one that appeals.

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  11. Just peeked at your opening sentence as I’m still collecting her backlist to read through and write about this one in coincide with its American publication next spring. She is really something…and prolific!

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