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The Fell by Sarah Moss

I’m really enjoying the novels of Sarah Moss. Probably a good thing, because on the strength of a couple of them I ordered a few more online and now have a little stack awaiting a quiet moment for me to savour.

There will be (well, already is) a trend of writing that will be placed in a genre called ‘Lockdown’. Novels, musings, responses, rage against, that sort of thing. The Fell will drop directly into those categories. A novel set in a locked-down United Kingdom. The events of the novel are driven by the impact of being made to stay in your home, prevented from working and unable to do the things you have always done. The things that help to keep you sane.

The short chapter segments each relate to a character and have that character as the central focus of those pages, although plenty of other names swirl around the periphery of the telling. All the narration is done in the third person, from our all-seeing narrator. There are only four main characters; Matt and Kate, mother and son, he 15 or 16 she in her forties and a single mother. Their neighbour is Alice, an older retired lady who has lost her husband and is recovering from cancer. And Rob, who works for the Mountain Rescue. Perhaps a Raven comes in a little bit at the end, but this may be part of Kate’s imagination rather than a truly separate narrator.

We see a snapshot into their lives for a day. We see them in lockdown in a village in the UK’s Peak District. That part of the country where I always though the North of England used to begin, from Derbyshire up into Yorkshire, across the Pennines to Cheshire towards the edge of Manchester. Where the Midlands gives way to the North. It is an area from my youth, places we used to drive through to see members of the family. My aunt lived in a tall stone house in Hathersage and I used to go walking on the moors above. There are lots of areas of upland, bare moors, limestone cliffs and open empty expanses. These are the areas that Kate is drawn to in the story, the places she walks to so that she can be alone, or can show her son the bats or the badgers.

This is not a long book, but we generate plenty of background about the lives of Matt and Kate, and how they bring shopping to their neighbour Alice. We hear about failed relationships and difficult circumstances bringing up a hungry teenager on a meagre budget. Most of all though, we focus on Kate’s decision to escape the house and take an evening walk up on the fell. A decision she will come to regret, and which will lead to the focus on that night and what is happening to the four main characters, what is running through their heads.

It is simply done, but that simplicity lends power to the narrative. It is also authentically voiced – the thoughts you have running though your head in a streaming narrative.

These are some thoughts from Kate:

‘Pull yourself together. If she could only go for a walk, get up onto the moors – no painting, anyway, not unless she makes her own paint, which is a thought, people must have done, mustn’t they, before there was B&Q and Homestore and all those other aircraft hangers congregating where one dual carriageway meets another, out of town shopping centres but they’re not centres of anything, sores festering on the skinfolds of roundabout and motorway junctions.’

Here is something from Alice:

‘She leans her face against the glass, to feel it cold and hard. No one’s touched her in months, not since she had that last lunch with Sheila back in March at the garden centre and they did the air-kissing thing they learnt late in life. No-one’s ever going to do that again, are they? Maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human, maybe she’s had her last hug, handshake, air-kiss. She realised – at the funeral, in fact, standing there singing next to Susie – that she’d almost certainly had the last sex of her life, she’s come to terms with that, mostly, sorts herself out when she needs it, but you can’t hug yourself or pat your own shoulder. Well, the shoulder – no that doesn’t work at all. Oh shut up she thinks, pull yourself together, here you are warm and comfortable in your nice house with your nice neighbours arranging for their nice friends to bring you nice food and there are people dying out there, children hungry and women locked up with men who beat them and nurses working twenty-eight hours a day, you just shut up.’


The second half of the book focuses on Kate, lost and alone on a dark wet night on the moors. Her mind starts to wander and she is haunted by a raven that she fears has come to peck out her eyes:

‘Rain drums on the blanket and there’s a rush of wings, a rude raven remark. Not my eyes, she says. King Lear, she thinks, the old man on the cliff. She took Matt to see it in Sheffield a few years ago, somehow forgot that it’s not only computer games and films that need age ratings. You think Shakespeare’s going to be suitable, don’t you, improving, and it probably was but Matt had nightmares for weeks. Vile jelly. It was very realistic, not that she’s seen anyone have their eyes pulled out, of course. Leave me be, Raven. Matt, says the raven, you left him. You didn’t tell him you were going out.’

And finally, I love this piece by Rob who has been out searching the moors in the rain:

‘There’s a bit of groaning as they move her, which is a good sign, and on the stretcher she starts mumbling. Rob leans in. Sorry, she’s saying, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He touches her shoulder through the wrappings. That’s all right, Kate, he says, you don’t have to be sorry, not to us. Her son, he thinks, if she comes through there’ll be some apologies due there right enough, and she’ll have to talk to the police, but this, he thinks this is why he does it, because no one has to apologise to him, because when you’ve utterly fucked up and you know it is when you need someone who doesn’t ask you to be sorry.’

I really like this book, much more than I did her last, Summerwater. There is a similarity of a compressed timescale, the events of a single day, and the chapters voiced by different characters. Here there is a more dramatic event for the novel to hinge around. The drama works well and the story is tight and lean.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson



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