In the autumn of 2021, the latest Sarah Moss arrived on the shelves of bookshops all over the country. While The Fell is much like any of her previous novels – suspenseful, meditative and intelligent – it feels entirely unique. Set in 2020, this is the first book I’ve read that directly tackles the enduring pandemic and its impact on life as we once knew it. Spoiler alert: it’s an absolute literary masterpiece.
The Fell is polyphonic, and while it’s narrated in third-person, it very much captures the inner thoughts of the novel’s key characters. Kate is the instigator of the story – a middle-aged woman who can no longer bear the two-week quarantine she has been placed under. While her son Matt plays his console upstairs, she slips out into the evening dusk for a quick solitary walk, something she has always done. Her neighbour Alice sees her leave, but against the advice of the home secretary during a time of suspicion and hostility, she says nothing. Despite hoping that no one will ever find out about her momentary escape into the great outdoors, Kate soon comes into trouble and incites an entire rescue operation.
Under any other circumstances, a plot like this might sound wholly mundane and even a little boring. But that really is the beauty of it. Amidst lockdown after lockdown, the most ordinary activities became a major event. One of my favourite things about The Fell is how Moss captures the intensity of isolation, crafting stream of consciousness narrations that, much like the experiences themselves, are pretty unbearable to read.
“Dust we are and to dust we shall return, well get on with it then, wouldn’t it be better sometimes just to do the returning than spend your life cowering away, weeks and months ticking by like this, not as if there weren’t epidemics then too, the original inhabitants, but they got on with it, didn’t they, people died and they were sad but they didn’t wall themselves up, they didn’t stop educating the children and forbid music, the living were allowed to live if you can call it that, Victorian mining, not that they lived long but maybe length isn’t how you want to measure it.”
Through characters like Kate and Alice, her elderly neighbour, Moss intelligently explores the varying nuances of experience during the pandemic. Their perspectives are multiplicitous. They understand the need for a lockdown and masks and social distancing, but they’re still frustrated by it. They know why regulations are in place, but they still criticise the messaging used by lawmakers and the media.
That was one aspect of the novel which I particularly enjoyed. Moss’ reflections on the language of the pandemic, phrases like ‘social distancing’ picked apart for their nonsensical nature. Looking back at the book now, especially since hearing the revelations of Downing Street ‘work events’, her characters’ critique of certain rules hits hard. The author exposes the stupidity of bans on walking, mentioning how the police flew drones and spent countless hours chasing people back indoors with the threat of fines or arrests. The Peak District setting makes the plot particularly poignant – these characters have an affinity with the natural world, and their lives completely change when that’s taken away from them.
As well as exploring one community’s experience of pandemic life, The Fell also celebrates the camaraderie, friendship and compassion witnessed throughout. As much as it is a criticism of transient rules and our desperation to break them, it is also a testament to the relationships that pulled us through. Neighbours support each other, both practically and emotionally, and even during their worst moments, the community pulls together for survival.
The Fell was published by Picador in 2021, and you can purchase it here.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.