AAt the start of it all, when the lucky ones were hiding at home to disinfect their groceries and bake bread, some wondered what impact the pandemic would have on fiction. Would people write novels about Covid? Or would it be the sort of thing that fiction ignores, the way it neglected to include cellphones, the internet, or climate change for so long? Now, 18 months later and with no end in sight, it seems increasingly important that the fiction recognize the truths the pandemic has revealed to us: how connected we are all and how much we fear each other. . Enter Sarah Moss’ eighth novel, The Fell.
Set in the Peak District overnight in November 2020, like Moss’s previous novel, Summerwater, The Fell explores isolation and claustrophobia through the different perspectives of a group of geographically close people. Alice is a retiree, classified as “vulnerable” due to her recent cancer treatment; she is brought in to shop for groceries by her teenage neighbor Matt and her mother Kate (her father is nowhere in sight). Rob is a local volunteer with search and rescue efforts; it’s his night with his daughter, and he wants to take care of her, but is urgently called on the fall. Kate, after coming into contact with someone infected with Covid in the cafe where she is a waitress, was unable to submit to a 10-day quarantine; it takes off at dusk in the nearby hills without a cell phone. At first, the outing is invigorating – Kate sings folk songs and Christmas carols to herself as she walks. But at some point, she falls, then night falls, and we don’t know how she will survive.
Moss, who throughout her work had a keen interest in medicine and society, wrote about a pandemic in its early 2009 Cold Earth: there archaeologists excavating in Greenland are trying to figure out what happened to some Scandinavian settlers who mysteriously disappeared – wiped out by a plague? – while a pandemic is raging here. But where the protagonists of this novel are trapped far from home, in The Fell the pandemic has confined Moss’ characters indoors. The home is not always a refuge: it can be a place of violence, boredom, infantilization and isolation. The enclosure walls of the house are the physical manifestations of the government’s failure to guide and protect the nation.
Soon after his mother leaves, Matt can sense that the house is empty; he has a “sense of space” and “stillness” he hasn’t felt in weeks, and his teenager’s heart swings between the freedom to do what he loves and the fear of being delivered to itself. At first, it’s unclear how long her mother will be away, but as the night progresses, with the search helicopters above, the vacuum becomes unbearable. Where has Kate gone and why? Is there any trauma in her past that could have caused her to leave home this way? “He sometimes wonders if her father, or maybe her father who died before she was born a man earlier, taught her to fear those doors and curtains – so maybe it would always happen, she was fleeing her forties. and the lockdown and the whole overall containment project ”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, Alice stays awake, worrying about Matt, thinking about how her own children would have come apart if she had disappeared like this. And Rob, who doesn’t know Kate at all, wonders if they’re dealing with someone who wanted to come home or someone who hasn’t.
Before the fall, as she walks and sings, Kate dares to go always higher, to be able to look at the city below and to take a step back. “There’s no point in thinking about how this will end up someday,” she thinks. “All other plagues have ended sooner or later […] and people lived and loved and built houses and planted trees and made food and clothes – and stained glass, traveled, even made music and put on plays. Ring a ring of roses. […] And of course, life won’t go back to how it was before, it never does and rarely should. “
Moss nods at the romance convention, creating some suspense – what will happen to Kate? – but Kate’s inner monologues run counter to form, suggesting that the result is not the goal. On the contrary, its walkabout seems to be an allegory for the pandemic itself: we have set out on this path, but we have no idea where we are on the mountain.
One way to deal with this knowledge is to become apocalyptic. Another is to find just and equitable ways of living together – during and after. Kate walks away from the daily hum of pandemic life and can see more clearly. Achieving this kind of perspective is precisely what the fiction sets out to do, and what Moss does with great sensitivity. “There will be holes in the education of children, a generation that has forgotten or never learned to go to a party, people of all ages who will not forget to be afraid to leave home, d ‘be afraid of others, for fear of touching, dancing or singing, traveling, trying on clothes – but, she still thinks, shut up now. Walk.”