Novelist Sarah Moss: ‘The injustice of the lockdown made my blood boil’

Complicated ethics of the pandemic underpin UCD professor’s new novel, The Fell

Nobody enjoyed the restrictions of lockdown, nor felt at peace with the virulent disease that prompted it, but it is undeniable that some people – whether because of temperament, circumstance or both – found it easier to adapt to than others. Novelist Sarah Moss was firmly among those for whom it felt horribly imprisoning, to the point where it made her “trapped and panicky”, particularly during the period of lockdown in the UK when outdoor exercise was only permitted for an hour a day; she is someone for whom the outside – and her regular practice of cycling, running, climbing – is central to sustaining a sense of wellbeing, and even, perhaps, the imaginative and creative powers that she brings to storytelling.

But it wasn’t simply a matter of personal preference. Moss is at pains to explain to me, as we chat at the Cheltenham Literature Festival the night after she has given an advance reading from her new novel The Fell, that she fully understood why societies had to impose such measures on their citizens. “I absolutely recognised the necessity of lockdown,” she says. “And it was very clear from looking at countries that didn’t do it, that it had to be done. But I didn’t embrace it in the way that a lot of my friends on the left embraced it. I was frightened by it. I was frightened by the powers that were taken by government.”

Her concerns ranged from the speed with which we appeared to dispense with rights to protest and to freedom of speech – “it seemed to me that some very valuable things were being thrown away without very much thought,” she contends – to the risks that lockdown posed to those for whom home was very much not a safe place. “And that’s a huge number of people, mostly women and children. And normally, my friends on the left would be concerned for them, and see their needs as a high priority.

But there was such a stampede towards opposition that I thought those needs were also being overlooked in the public discourse. Of course, the organisations that support those people were working unbelievably hard to support them. But they kind of disappeared; it was as if there were sacrifices worth making. And there was no public conversation about what was happening to women and children in abusive households. So I was just concerned about the price we were paying for lockdown, and I wasn’t hearing much about it.”

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I think a lot of the lockdown policing was really reinforcing inequalities that were already being exacerbated by the pandemic

Those issues – broadly speaking, the complicated ethics of lockdown – are what underpin The Fell, which follows Ghost Wall and Summerwater, two compact, dense novels that also examine what happens when groups of people are placed in circumscribed and claustrophobic situations. Moss says that the novels didn’t feel linked as she was writing, but when I say they feel very much like a loose trilogy to me, she agrees that there are recurring themes.

Among them are the tensions between the family unit and wider societal bonds, between domestic interiors and natural exteriors, between individual will and collective responsibility. The Fell has a simple set-up; in Moss’s words, it’s a novel about “a woman who is supposed to be self-isolating for two weeks. And she just can’t do it. She cannot stay inside her house for two weeks. And she loses it and goes for a walk on her own on the moors late in the afternoon in November, thinking that it can’t possibly do any harm. But it does do harm.”

From that short summary spins an absorbing four-way narrative, in which we enter the minds of Kate, the absconding walker, her teenage son, their older next-door neighbour and a member of the mountain rescue team. And in fewer than 200 hundred pages, Moss seems to lift the lid on all the anxieties, antagonisms and accommodations of life during the pandemic.

Her aim, she tells me, was to “to undermine the kind of binary pro-lockdown/anti-lockdown lines that we were all beginning to take” in the early months of Covid. Living with her husband and two teenage sons in Coventry – the family has since moved to Ireland – Moss quickly began to spot the fault lines in a one-size-fits-all response to the virus. “I found, for example, that when I was out running and on my bike, I was almost never stopped. When my son was out running or on his bike, he was stopped quite a lot. I think that’s to do with the privilege of age, and gender. And I think a lot of the lockdown policing was really reinforcing inequalities that were already being exacerbated by the pandemic.”

I do not want to watch a live-stream play with no audience. I want to be in the theatre, and if I can't be in the theatre, I'd rather have nothing

Moving from the town into the countryside, Moss would pass housing estates that she was familiar with because she volunteered at their food banks, and where “I knew that there were families with five or six kids locked up in two-room flats with no balconies and damp running down the walls and nowhere to go. And then I was cycling out into the villages of Warwickshire where there were these huge, gracious, 17th- and 18th-century farm houses with their own orchards and fish ponds and tennis courts. And it just made my blood boil, the injustice of that lockdown.”

Translating her fury at the impact on individuals into fiction was, however, a different matter. For a time she was, like many of us, “overwhelmed by the various kinds of fear and anxiety”, uncertain that our experiences could be represented in art and culture. A keen theatre-goer, she resisted watching live performances digitally “because they just made me desperately sad. I mean, I do not want to watch a live-stream play with no audience. I want to be in the theatre, and if I can’t be in the theatre, I’d rather have nothing.”

But then she began to see how it could be done, enjoying To Be a Machine, the adaptation of Mark O’Connell’s book of the same name, and noting that people were beginning to address these issues in last year’s edition of the annual anthology of new Irish writing, The Winter Papers: “I think the combination of those things made me realise that there was a way forward for art in relation to the pandemic.”

One of the recurring themes in The Fell is that of empathy – the ability to imagine what life might be like for others when they are under duress, and what happens to us when it is absent. Moss was struck by the judgmentalism that appeared to increase throughout lockdown, and the fact that “people’s lives are falling apart here. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. But it means that we should be reckoning the cost to others and not just to ourselves. And the fact that it’s easy for some doesn’t make it easy for everybody or safe for everybody.”

And the version of safety that was a frequent touchstone – everybody tucked up in their homes, baking banana bread and lavishing time on their gardens – also seemed to her rooted in “a fantasy of domesticity, in which everyone is safe or happy at home in their family units and nobody lives alone and nobody lives in abusive households. And it was just such a kind of right-wing, 1950s fantasy of domestic life that I thought we knew was damaging to almost all concerned.”

In England there were all the hotlines where you were encouraged to dob in your neighbours and there was nothing like that in Ireland

Midway through the pandemic, Moss and her family moved to Ireland, where she took up a teaching post at University College Dublin; it was a long-planned relocation, and one that also offered the chance to compare the countries’ different response to the emergency. “One of the things that seemed to me significantly different and very telling between English and Irish lockdown was that in England there were all the hotlines where you were encouraged to dob in your neighbours and there was nothing like that in Ireland,” she says. “It felt much more collective, there was much more charity.” I ask her what she puts that down to. “I think it’s just a kinder place. I do. I think there’s a widely accepted public culture of kindness that I don’t see in England.”

For now – creatively speaking – Moss has left the pandemic behind and returned to the fictional project she has been working on for years, a historical novel that she keeps being diverted from by the novels that bubble up. “And the idea of this book is that it’s a beautiful distraction, it’s the book that you would take to the bomb shelter, or to bed with you when you know you’re going to have a bad night. I want it to be a book of consolation. So quite different.” Different, perhaps; but still, I bet, recognisably the clear-sighted and generous work of Sarah Moss.