It's no surprise that Sarah Moss is among the first authors to take up the gauntlet of coronavirus. "Epidemiology is particularly interesting to novelists, whose characters imagine themselves autonomous but are in fact patterns in the author's mind," she wrote in a blog post during lockdown. Moss's 2009 debut, Cold Earth, featured members of an archaeological expedition stranded in Greenland as a pandemic ("the virus thing") unfolds elsewhere. Last year's Summerwater also communicated a sense of confinement, with families in a holiday cabin park cut off from the world with no internet or mobile connection.
In The Fell, Moss’s eighth novel, Kate is a single mother meant to be self-isolating after coming in contact with a colleague who has tested positive for Covid-19. Not coping well with being cooped up, she sneaks out for a walk in the fells of the Peak District without letting her teenage son Matt know she’s gone. Alice, their elderly neighbour, sees her leaving and wonders if she should intervene.
With Moss’s trademark attention to both the beauty and danger of the natural world, the moors come alive as almost another character. But Kate’s delight at having escaped outdoors is short-lived: with night approaching, she falls and breaks her leg.
"Practically speaking, the public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot," warned Virginia Woolf in her 1926 essay, On Being Ill. By upping the ante of her corona-novel with the inciting incident of the fall, Moss heeds Woolf's warning. As it gets dark and starts to rain, Kate risks death if she's not found, but worries that being found will trigger a £10,000 fine for violating the rules – more than she earns in a year working at a cafe.
The Fell conveys the particular anxieties of the time: the precautions about touching surfaces, the financial stress of furlough and the dread of denunciation by neighbours
The novel’s close third-person narration – much of it stream of consciousness – toggles between Kate, Matt, Alice and Rob, the mountain rescue volunteer dispatched on the search operation. Because she left her phone at home, Rob suspects that Kate may have set off with the intention of killing herself – a plausible concern given the mental health toll of the pandemic. Indeed, we see Kate wrapping paracetamol in parcel tape as a precaution earlier in the book: “You can’t exactly stop your future self killing yourself but you can make it more difficult, require more time for reflection,” she explains.
Covering only a few hours, The Fell conveys not only Kate’s and Matt’s fears but the particular anxieties of the time: the precautions about touching surfaces, the financial stress of furlough, and the dread of denunciation by neighbours. Even the language has been infected, like the phrase “social distancing”, notes Alice: “there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous”. The book also captures what was lost – from missed celebrations to more everyday delights. “What is a café – what was a café – but a place for pleasure,” reflects Kate. “Small daily pleasures of food and talk.”
In addition to the drama of the search mission, we’re privy to the other characters’ concerns through their interior monologues. Rob is mourning the loss of a friend in a climbing accident he witnessed and butting heads with his teenage daughter, who accuses him of preferring the mountain to spending time with her, as her mother did before she and Rob divorced.
Alice, widowed and lonely, is shielding after cancer treatment. She wonders if “maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human”. Over an on-screen dinner, her daughter threatens to call the police on Kate for breaking the rules even though she and Matt have been helping Alice by doing her grocery shopping. “Sometimes Alice thinks she’d rather have a Radio 4 podcast than Susie with her dinner.”
Like Summerwater and the 2018 chef d’oeuvre Ghost Wall, The Fell is a slim book covering a lot of ground. In unfussy prose, Moss seamlessly blends quotidian concerns. “When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook,” she wrote in Cold Earth, with the most pressing issues of our time. Among her recurring preoccupations is class. Kate notes that she would have never thought it could be illegal to walk the hills alone, but “the authorities have never liked to have commoners wandering the land instead of getting and selling”.
For Moss, the idea of control over one’s life is itself a sign of privilege. “For lucky people in lucky places, it’s possible to forget that we live at the mercy not only of our educations and our neighbours and whoever is in charge,” she wrote in her pandemic post. “But of our nervous systems, the electricity in our hearts, the bacteria in our blood and guts and, of course, any viruses looking for a new home.”
If we’ve learned anything from this past year, it’s that autonomy is as illusory in real life as it is for fictional characters.