The Fell by Sarah Moss
Published by Picador, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Set during November 2020, at the height of the UK’s covid lockdown, the events of The Fell take place across a single day and night. We follow multiple perspectives: Kate, who, struggling to get through a 2-week quarantine period after testing positive for the virus, takes to the hills for a solitary walk despite this breaching government guidelines; Matt, her teenage son, also forced to isolate at home; Alice, their widowed next-door neighbour who is shielding due to ongoing cancer recovery; and Rob, a volunteer mountain rescuer, called in to search for Kate when she fails to return.
Thematically, it’s impossible for the book not to resonate to some extent, given how close to home it all is. It’s very much about the physical and mental ramifications of loneliness and isolation, and how compassion and community must ultimately triumph over fear if we’re to make it through. Though Kate is the narrative lynchpin, Alice is by far the most interesting character. Through her voice, Moss does a great job of reflecting the constant stream of contradictory thoughts that many of us will be able to relate to; simultaneously thankful for and angry about the limitations forced upon us by covid restrictions; feeling at once personally victimised by the pandemic, and grateful for the privileges we have compared to others. Moss also captures the strange reality of how boring, monotonous and domestic living through a real-life dystopian plague has proven to be, despite the situation sounding so alien and dramatic if it had been pitched to us some 2 years ago.
The trouble is, while I admire Moss’ efforts, by attempting to write a book so of-the-moment, its publication in 2021 feels at once outdated and too soon. Though covid anxiety is still very much a constant in most of our lives, most of us also have far greater freedoms than we did this time last year – not to mention the breakthrough of the ongoing vaccine rollout. Living in such bizarre and ever-changing times, as we are, the lockdown of winter 2020 somehow feels a world away already, and yet, having not emerged at the other side of the tunnel just yet, true reflection and hindsight on life-in-covid-times feels premature.
Plow wise, there’s not a huge amount to talk about, and what there is follows a predictable trajectory. As seems to be the case quite often in Moss’ novels, much is left unresolved; the plot more a vehicle to explore her characters and themes. While I can understand that decision from a creative standpoint – given that we are still now in the midst of the pandemic about which she is writing, hence we don’t have all the answers yet either – its open-endedness will likely frustrate some.
Where Moss really excels, as always, is her keen human observation, and her ability to write beautifully and evocatively about the landscape. This latter point is particularly relevant in this instance, given the importance of the hills to the action itself, and the almost mythical alure of open countryside that many felt throughout lockdown.
All-in-all, I found this an admirable if slightly clumsy attempt to give voice to our collective experience of living through a pandemic. It’s far from my favourite Moss novel so far, but it hasn’t dampened by desire to check out more.