British author Sarah Moss has written another quiet yet deeply moving short novel that takes place during the pandemic over the course of about twenty-four hours. In “The Fell,” Kate is waiting out a two-week COVID-19 quarantine along with the rest of her village in the Peak District of England. A bit of geographical knowledge is useful—the Peak District includes the National Park, an elevated area of moors and craggy valleys and gorges. “Fell” is not a common term in the United States (certainly not in Chicago), referring to that rocky, barren landscape, save sheep and day hikers. Kate grew up in the area and knows the old stone paths well, “The main trail swings north: Swine’s Back, Edale Rocks, Kinder Low, the edge route to the Downfall and then the great northern march over Alport, Black Ashop Moor and Bleaklow, on, if you like, over Bare Holme Moss, Black Hill, Saddleworth, along England’s backbone into Yorkshire, Cumbria, the Borders.” Those whose wanderlust has been curbed by the pandemic may find themselves in a paroxysm of longing just reading that sentence.
For Kate, the physical need to climb those hills is overwhelming, she needs the sense of peace they provide. No wonder, they provide a feeling like this: “Pym’s Chair, the Woolpacks. They’re easy to climb, mostly, from behind, and then you can sit on the edge with your feet dangling over open air, sip tea from your flask and watch the weather pass until you feel almost airborne, part of the sky.” So she leaves her home one evening, even though there’s a fine for leaving the house, even though she knows the dangers of hiking at night, because she’s going crazy in the house. This is in the early days of the pandemic, when we knew very little.
These early Pandemic Novels provide the joy of familiarity, the dark humor of remembering when we worried if the mail carried the virus, or left packages to rest outside for several days before bringing them in. Back when we were spraying our groceries with disinfectant and zealously wiping down countertops. Back when some of us were going stir-crazy from being in the house all day, so it’s easy to relate to Kate’s desire to walk outside, despite the fact that night is falling. Poor Kate takes a trip and spends a horrendous and painful night imagining she’ll die alone. Meanwhile, parts of the narrative are provided by Kate’s teenage son, an elderly neighbor, and the search-and-rescue guy who goes out to help find Kate. Mainly, we read their thoughts, and here Moss shines in creating the stream of consciousness of fully-realized, distinct characters. She easily conveys the isolation of the pandemic, that sad-and-lonely feeling we all had, but also a hopeful, very British, can-do attitude many adapted to get through it.
Moss has previously dug deep into ancient British history, both obliquely and overtly, in recent books like “Summerwater” and “Ghost Wall.” In those novels, landscape and history converge to influence the contemporary British person. While “The Fell” doesn’t specifically draw a dotted line from the early historical person to the contemporary Briton, Moss always places her characters within the continuation of their ancestors. The area that Kate is navigating is, in fact, the path of an old Roman road. Kate feels a closer affinity to the miners around whom her village grew. “She does think about them sometimes, the original inhabitants, the stirring of porridge and pottage where she now fries tofu and grills peppers but also stirs bean soup of the sort they’d surely have eaten with probably the same vegetables from the same garden as those Victorian miners, grown in earth that probably still holds the nutrients of their nightsoil, the afterlives of their bodies present in her and Matt, and aren’t we all just rearrangements of the same atoms, which could maybe somehow be a comforting thought but isn’t, not particularly.”
What does comfort Kate, as she lies in the dark on the fell, wondering if she’ll survive the night? Snippets of hymns, an imagined conversation with a raven, and, like many of us, plunging through the challenges she’s faced and overcome, until the pandemic feels like just another obstacle in an event-filled life. (Kelly Roark)
By Sarah Moss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 193 pages