We've been beneath a few different layers of isolation. There's us in our literal homes, but there's also us locked down in our own minds, fighting with our own assumptions about the other people locked in their houses and in their heads.
It's not that we don't see other people any more. They're out there. In the aisles of the grocery store, or lined up to get into a doughnut shop, or walking maskless in groups down the street. What can we do but wonder about people? We're left to peer out our blinds, or from a Mother Bates vantage in a high window, and wonder if that maskless group of four is family. They don't look like family. But what, we correct ourselves to ourselves, should families look like? Who are we to decide what a family looks like? We see people go into our neighbour's house and wonder who these visitors are and what our threshold is before we call someone about it.
Sarah Moss's new novel, Summerwater, is not specific to the COVID era, but it fits perfectly. Within a lochside cabin retreat in Scotland, a smattering of vacationers and residents find themselves shut in by ceaseless rain that, even to the true denizens of the area, seems a little excessive. Person by person, Moss visits the thoughts of the cabin dwellers, young and old, vacationer and local. The whole lot are a bit grouchy, kept up the night before by chest-bothering bass from a party thrown by the cabin of... are they Romanians? Ukranians? Bulgarians? Whoever they are and wherever they're from, they didn't get the memo that this retreat is meant for quietude. Foreign inconsideration aside, being trapped inside by the deluge, the only wifi in the pub a few miles away, has left everyone a bit squirrely.
The relentless rain overflows the stream of each character's consciousness. Kept apart, each character imagines the lives and intentions of their fellow holiday-goers. Unable to fish in the loch, they cast aspersions instead. They wonder and they assume and they judge. Minds yearn to be outside as much as bodies do, and all this psychic weather gathers into a storm of its own. Soon, little sparks of unease begin to flash like lightning in the rain clouds. Menace creeps in, just out of each character's periphery. Something is coming. But from which direction? How do you anticipate it? How do you prepare for it?
Summerwater, which takes its name from the poem "The Ballad of Lake Semerwater," is an unwittingly fine evocation of our current moment. In one sense, we're all in this crisis together, as the vacationers are all hampered by the same storm. Upon closer inspection, though, and considering the realities of class disparity, we are not all in this together in the same ways. Knowledge of ourselves does not equal knowledge of others and, until we're able to truly mingle again, the distance between people will only yawn wider apart.