Short books are great for getting your reading count up but sometimes their length can be deceiving. What should only take a few hours to read could end up taking a couple of days because of the emotional toil. I definitely think that’s what happened with this one. I’m not sure that I was ready for this book. We’re still very much in the Coronavirus pandemic and, as a clinically extremely vulnerable person, I don’t feel as though my life will get back to normal for a while. So, maybe it wasn’t the right time to be reading this? However, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist seeing what Sarah Moss had in store for me.
I’d never have believed you if you’d told me last year that I’d be desperate to read a book about the pandemic. Yet here we are. Sarah Moss’ The Fell became one of my most anticipated novels of 2021 despite being set in the UK’s lockdown during November 2020. Although there is no explicit mention of Covid, so I guess there is a slight vagueness to the story. Meaning it might age a little better than a straight Covid novel. The pandemic is the context for the story rather than the defining feature.
One evening Kate, a single mother who lives in the Peak District, sets out on a walk. It’s a walk that she’s taken countless times before and her backpack is well-stocked. The only problem is, Kate is in the middle of a two-week quarantine after coming into contact with somebody who has Covid. Unable to cope in the house any longer, Kate makes a break for freedom. When she doesn’t return, it becomes a race against time to find her.
I’ve read a few reviews of this book that claim it’s promoting anti-social distancing and anti-mask sentiments. It really isn’t. Anybody who bothered to read beyond the first few lines of the synopsis would know that. Instead, this is a book about the unseen consequences of those measures. The potential toll on people’s mental health. The unseen and unspoken issues fester behind closed doors as people do as they’ve been advised. As I said, this isn’t a book about the Coronavirus but human beings.
The narrative switches between four different and distinct perspectives: Kate; her son, Matt; their shielding neighbour, Alice; and Rob, a member of the mountain rescue team. Each of them has been struggling through the lockdown in their own way and we learn just how difficult life has been. Normally I’m not a fan of multiple perspective novels but I think it works here. The distinct voices help to create that sense of isolation that everyone is feeling. The lack of human contact that we all dealt with as we stayed home.
Far from being a book that wants to provoke revolution, this is a story that wants to shift the focus from stats and politics. This is a story that speaks of the enduring human spirit and how easy it is for that to falter. The pandemic affected every single person but it didn’t affect everyone equally. It is easy to see Kate’s actions as reckless and selfish but, viewed with an empathetic eye, it is a desperate act of a struggling woman. As we learn more of Kate’s history, we start to see her motivations and it becomes harder to condemn her actions.
Sarah Moss has done a remarkable job of writing a novel that speaks so much of our present times whilst also making it somehow timeless. Her writing is captivating and sensory. The descriptions of nature in Kate’s chapters are beautiful. She also manages to capture the different emotional states of each character. This is effortless writing that is effortless to read.