The Fell is a novel about lockdown, kindness, and survival, as a single mum goes for a walk and doesn’t come back. It’s November 2020 and Kate and her son Matt are self-isolating, but Kate is going stir crazy, unable to handle staying inside, so surreptitiously sets off into their Peak District surroundings. Her clinically vulnerable neighbour Alice spots her go, and soon Alice and Matt are wondering where Kate is, and a rescue operation is underway.
I’ve read Sarah Moss’ previous novels Summerwater and Ghost Wall, and in some ways this one is similar to Summerwater in that it is looking at a particular present moment in Britain, exploring it through multiple perspectives and the natural landscape. However, what is perhaps most notable about The Fell is that it is a COVID novel, or whatever you want to call it, and is very specifically set in November 2020. I don’t know if I’ve read a book that’s set so recently but so specifically at the same time, with a sense that at least initial readers will remember that time and what you could and couldn’t do. That is a lot of the focus of the book, around four different characters’ perspectives on lockdown and what their lives are like: Kate who can’t handle being stuck inside, Alice who is vulnerable but is privileged in other ways and yet lonely, Matt who is having to deal with being stuck inside with his mum, and Rob, a mountain rescue volunteer whose daughter is staying with him that weekend. The plot is quite straightforward, as it mostly focuses on the characters’ interior lives, and what will happen to Kate.
This is the first COVID novel I’ve read, so it possible benefited from that, and I felt that Moss does a very good job of exploring the characters’ attempts to keep going through the lockdown and what happens when that all comes together in this one night. The atmosphere will probably make it hard to read for some people, really bringing back memories of being stuck inside and a lot of blame floating around, but it works well in this case, with Moss’ style of getting inside characters’ thoughts effective at increasing tension whilst building up a picture of their mental states during lockdown. I’m not sure if it’s all that enjoyable to read a book so carefully set during a specific part of the pandemic in England, but it is pulled off well.
I found The Fell an intriguing read, partly because I’ve not seen many fictional representations of daily life in the pandemic yet so it felt fairly fresh, or at least rehashing things I remembered. The simmering tension and writing style were similar to Moss’ other novels, so fans of her work will probably like this one, though it’s worth going into it expecting it to be about lockdown and COVID so you don’t go into it expecting escapism from the present.