“Anyway, a proper pandemic might be quite good for the environment,” says a character in Sarah Moss’s 2009 debut novel, Cold Earth. “Depopulation from the plague did wonders for medieval fauna and flora.” More than a decade later, The Fell—which was published in the UK in 2021—explores that “proper pandemic” scenario through the lives of five characters in central England’s Peak District during a COVID-19 lockdown.
These two works bookend the author’s oeuvre, embracing themes that resurface throughout both fiction and non-fiction: death and survival, fractured and functioning systems, homes and stopping-places, community and isolation, and history and narrative. These themes’ consistent appearance in her work magnifies the tangible links across and between narratives.
Moss views death and survival both as an historian and a novelist, and she recognizes their relationship: “Underfoot, the path was soft with dust, white roots jutting like birdbones from the dry earth.” Readers might be struck by this image of birdbones jutting outward from the soil in her 2018 novel, but something richer lies beneath: an awareness of the hummus that nurtures those roots and creates an unseen ecosystem amid decay.
Night Waking, Moss’s second novel, was born out of 19th-century deaths on remote Hebridean islands near Scotland: “The Parish Record shows a burial immediately following every birth on the island from 1871 to 1878, when a baby lived until the influenza outbreak of 1881.” In this 2011 novel’s dominant present-day narrative, Anna is sleep-deprived, struggling physically and mentally to raise children while her researcher husband studies a puffin community’s survivability and decline; via the accompanying historical narrative, readers witness an epistolary transformation of the statistical into the personal.
Even ordinary quotidian responsibilities, like cleaning the fridge, emphasize Anna’s struggle against the relentless movement towards decay, including “the salad drawer, whose contents had reached a stage where they could be emptied straight into a flowerbed without need for an interlude on the compost heap.” One woman’s strained domestic life aligns and intersects with a constellation of stories, with other diminishments and losses.
Sarah Moss continues to explore infants’ and children’s vulnerability and mortality in The Tidal Zone (2016), wherein a parent acknowledges global threats while confronting their child’s urgent medical intervention:
“It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”
Another passage from the novel later aligns eerily with Moss’s new pandemic novel, with its visceral description of hospital rooms and passages:
“I heard the undertone of the ward at night, like the running of an aeroplane’s engine when the passengers settle into half-sleep in simulated night, surrounded by drooling strangers, wearers of glasses bare-faced with the grooves on their noses indecently exposed, the smell of feet and bad breath and private shame recirculating in everyone’s lungs.”
Her observations about breath are relevant to this family’s experience; in the context of Moss’s work, however, readers recognize her preoccupation with the systems that sustain us and compromise us. Systems as individual and self-contained as the human body’s respiratory system, or as societal and expansive as international trading networks: they can function, or they can fracture.
Nuclear families, marriages, and collegial relationships are stressed and strained in Moss’s fiction, from the moment characters in Cold Earth land in Greenland, with limited resources and communication, to excavate Viking settlements while sickness begins to spread across Europe. Her concerns over who bears the brunt of systemic breakdowns and inequities extend into her non-fiction. In 2009’s Chocolate: A Global History, she boldly discusses how the industry’s long-established brands continue to rely on enslaved labor in the twenty-first century; industry leaders capitalize on the emergence of ethically produced chocolate companies (which pay producers and manufacturers fairly) to encourage consumers to conflate paying more with doing less harm while their own higher price-points increase their profit margins.
“Poor diet and overwork make nothing easier,” observes Ally—a character at the heart of Bodies of Light (2014) and Signs for Lost Children (2015)—in a pair of historical novels discussed further below. Ally speaks of grappling with the growing medicalization of late-19th-century health care, specifically her efforts to practice and support women through childbirth; however, the observation is also valid when Moss examines the present-day COVID-19 pandemic in The Fell.
Beneath Ally’s statement, a deeper truth percolates: these patterns repeat, across centuries. In Moss’s 2018 novel, Ghost Wall, a family participates in a recreation of Iron-Age life on an archaeological dig site in rural, northern England:
Of course, that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone.
Pattern recognition is just that: individuals can then embellish the pattern with their own comfort or frustration. “We all believe in patterns we do not see,” The Tidal Zone tells us. The mother at the heart of The Fell told her young son that, at night, “you realise it’s not all about what you can see.” So, how do we tend our fires, assemble our understanding, mend the gaps, and coordinate our systems, to facilitate that dance?
Justine contemplates her sex life, its galvanizing potential, in Summerwater (2020): “They should again soon, really, never mind the thinness of the bathroom walls, must have been two weeks, three—four?—and even when she doesn’t feel like it, it seems to be good for them, like oiling your bike chain, doesn’t have to be fun but it stops things falling apart.” Later, in this polyphonic novel, David appears resigned, isolated: “You’d think the sun will never shine again, that it’s probably not even up there any more, is drifting away from us in disgust towards another set of planets.” Deeper beneath is an extended view: “Should the history of bedrock comfort us, in geological time?” Once again, Moss intertwines the minute and global possibilities: she reminds readers that all the creatures on that bedrock, across centuries and borders, construct (or seek) homes.
The concept of home is key to Moss’s fiction: past and present, outdoors and indoors. Humans assemble scraps to form nests—literal and metaphorical—for themselves and their young indoors, and sometimes wild spaces and animals transmit vitally important information that augments characters’ awareness and understanding of themselves and the wider world (most obviously in The Fell—but that would be spoilery).
“How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?” Silvie asks in Ghost Wall (2018). Ally also wrestles with contradictions: she believes home is supposed to mean be “where all shall be well” but she knows that “there is no such place on earth and that particular difficulties await her in this return.” In Night Waking, Anna worries that she has “kept the children inside far too much in Oxford, wrapped round each other on the sofa, working our way like termites along the bookcases.” And Kate, in The Fell, declares: “Houses need to breathe.”
Kate’s son, Matt, dithers: “He could clean, he supposes, Mum’d like to come back and find the place clean, not that it’s dirty, got cleaned on Saturday in the usual way…so pointless, cleaning the kitchen, lasts about two hours before the next meal.” Domestic routines are confining and comforting in Moss’s pandemic novel. Next door, Kate’s mother—Alice—is restless and lonely in her comfortable home, seeking entertainment to counter the gloomies: “More Springsteen, there’s a reason they don’t write protest anthems about well-off retired people feeling a bit sad.”
Home is central to Moss’s non-fiction too. In Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012), she writes about leaving England with her family to live in Reykjavik for a year. Scott’s Last Biscuit: the literature of polar exploration (2006) and The Frozen Ship: The Histories and Tales of Polar Exploration (2006) both query the concept of home through the lens of absence. Another previously published academic work also circles around the subject: Spilling the Beans: reading, writing, eating and cooking in British women’s fiction 1770 – 1830 (2009). Few topics reflect home more intensely than food writing.
Moss’s academic writing about polar exploration charts the thematic waters of community and isolation, and her fictional characters also yearn for and resist connection. In Summerwater, motherhood is warming and wearing: “She had been wondering how many times Izzie would say ‘Mummy’ if she didn’t reply, but it seems that Izzie can say Mummy more times than Claire can listen to it.” In Cold Earth, Nina deliberates over her lover’s health, back in England: “The rest of the country can by dying in the streets for all I care as long as you are all right.” Ally’s lover, in the historical pair, wonders if “……a part of the art of marriage must be to learn to see solitude in its double form.”
Understanding interrelationships—whether on archaeological dig sites, remote islands, or under lockdown—can be a source of strength and, simultaneously, a reminder of vulnerability, as Alice expresses in The Fell: “It’s nice enough, being warm and comfortable, but she can almost feel Matt through the wall, feel his fear. And Kate, out there on a night like this, you could almost feel her too, on the wind and the rain, in the dark.” Balance is ever-shifting, elusive: characters careen between not-enough-ness and too-much-ness.
Narrative provides the ultimate retreat: the stories we tell ourselves and others. Night Waking’s dual narrative serves as a bridge between past and present, and it concretely connects to the two-volume pair of historical novels, which develops to include another prominent perspective alongside Ally’s. Cold Earth, Summerwater, and The Fell, present several interconnected perspectives/narrators, but perhaps The Tidal Zone informs readers most clearly: “Fiction makes us believes in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy in comedy.”
We strive to make sense of things and Sarah Moss proves that narrative is an effective tool. In her debut novel, she writes:
“I’d always wondered how Virginia Woolf could be so flippant about the 1918 Spanish flu in her journal, slipping it in as a joke between Lytton Strachey’s sore finger and Lady Murray’s invitation to lunch, when the death rate in parts of London was higher than it had been in the trenches and people who had been well at breakfast were dead by bedtime and deadly as plutonium to everyone who saw them in between, but I think I understand it now. When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook. Doctoral theses to write. And letters to read, and answer.”
In The Fell, Moss deliberately repositions the “deadly” spread and impact in response to Woolf’s flippancy: “Smallpox, typhoid, cholera: probably more people have lived through epidemics than not over the last few centuries. And of course life won’t go back to the way it was, it never does and rarely should.” Then, in fewer than two hundred pages, she investigates “was”, “does”, and “should.”
It literally begins and ends with preparation and survival in the presence of death. The Fell is structurally patterned to reveal personal and political systems; a character at the end of a chapter leans forward against one pane of glass and the character at the beginning of the next leans against another window, while each person inwardly debates the intricate national public health measures that are rapidly shifting to reflect developing data about COVID-19’s spread. The characters’ experiences of community and isolation are deftly drawn to represent life-in-flux. In Ghost Wall, Silvie remarks that people “make ceremony for the animal dead” but, she concludes definitively: “There is still a dying.” In contrast, a narrative like The Fell is an act of preservation.
The Fell is Sarah Moss’s thirteenth book, her eighth novel. It’s openly titled for a place and, subtly, references an event. It exhibits truths and contradictions, and it contains a succinct, self-contained story that, simultaneously, encapsulates an author’s whole oeuvre.
By Sarah Moss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published March 1, 2022