Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss
Unputdownable is one of those words one should never use in a review. It’s a cliché. So, I won’t say I found Sarah Moss’s first novel, Cold Earth, unputdownable (I did in fact put it down on occasion). It is fair though to say that I stayed up late on a work night to finish it.
The premise is a slightly unusual one. A six person archaelogical expedition is working on a former Viking settlement on the west coast of Greenland. The settlement was never large, and died off long ago. Traces are few. When the expedition left, it was to news of a possible bird-flu like epidemic and as winter draws on at the site the news from home becomes increasingly worrying. Tensions begin to emerge as the suspicion grows that when the time comes to leave there may not be anywhere to leave for.
Curiously that’s not the cover I have. Mine is similar, but it’s a woman’s face and in profile. I prefer mine.
The novel is written in the first person, with each character getting a section in turn. The opening and largest section belongs to Nina. She is English, pretty, neurotic and not actually an archaeologist. In fact, her academic field is English literature and she is here on the back of a grant to study the attitudes of Victorian writers to the vikings. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a serious expedition for her at all, it’s a grant-funded holiday facilitated by the expedition leader who has a crush on her and so took her on as unskilled labour.
Nina is a great character. She’s intelligent, funny, romantic and deeply in love with her new boyfriend who she left behind and now worries about. Having been camping, I had to agree with her on the following:
A ‘two-person tent’, I discovered, is big enough for one small person, some chocolate and a lot of books.
There are problems though. From the beginning Nina has dreams of a presence at the site. In her sleep she sees images of its past, and of the raiders she thinks destroyed it. Then, waking, she begins to see evidence of a presence too. The expedition may be haunted, the viking dead may not welcome their bones being disinterred.
Or, Nina may be struggling to adjust to the hardships of the expedition, suffering from sleep deprivation, and hallucinating.
This paragraph is sandwiched between two dreams of that haunting presence:
And then yesterday we got up, ate dried fruit, dug all morning, ate crispbread and that extraordinary Norwegian cheese that tastes like a mixture of rust and condensed milk with the last of the apples, dug all afternoon, ate pasta with Textured Vegetable Protein (the texture only makes things worse) and tomato purée out of a tube followed by chocolate, and went to bed. I began to suspect that the practice of archaeology is less interesting than I’d hoped. All that came to light were worms, which are why I don’t like gardening, and Yianni spent the whole day generating paperwork. In the night I heard crying again.
Here Nina wakes from another of these dreams/visions:
Something held my arms and I woke struggling and shouting for help. Fear hammered in my chest and cold surged in my head as I fought for air. I sat up. It was the sleeping bag, close as a shroud around my upper body. Which did not explain the distinct memory of a cold grasp on my arm, or the rustling in the grass outside too low and slow for wind. The night was dusky, and I sat there a long time, listening to something that did not stop moaning and muttering until the sun came back.
When I first read those paragraphs I found the first one funny and the second had me sympathising with Nina’s fears. As the book progressed though I thought about these incidents from others’ perspectives. Her boredom with archaeology would not be so lovable to actual archaelogists; people who are depending on her to help make the dig a success. Her thought that the sleeping bag could not explain the cold grasp isn’t that convincing given she was asleep at the time and dreaming. Also, her shouting presumably woke the whole camp up.
Other issues become apparent with Nina. Two of the expedition members, Ruth and Jim, are American. A third, Ben, is British but has long adopted America as his home and prefers it. Nina is dismissive of America. She sees it as close-minded, parochial, imperialist, and she has no particular interest in changing her view on the subject. Nina in fact is a little smug, and in the context of an essentially half-American expedition her behaviour on this point is both selfish and rude.
It’s amusing to be Nina, and to read her narrative. The suspicion mounted for me though that it would probably be far less amusing to share a camp with Nina.
At this point anyone reading this is probably thinking, aha, unreliable narrator. To a degree I suppose she is. That’s not the whole story though. Nina’s section is her journal, it’s her record of her thoughts and of what happens to her during the day. Yes other interpretations are possible, but it’s not so much that she’s unreliable as that her’s isn’t the only point of view.
Each character has their own section, their own journal or letter home or other written record. The best of these besides Nina is Ruth, an uptight but highly professional American archaeologist who remains perfectly groomed at all times and who takes an instant (and reciprocated) dislike to Nina.
The other characters are (in no particular order): Catriona, a Scottish archeologist and frustrated artist; Jim, a Midwestern Christian and general nice guy; Ben, serious and hard-nosed; and Yianni, the expedition leader. Nina and Ruth are both extremely well realised. Jim works as a character when described by others, but the section of the book in his own voice isn’t quite as convincing as say Nina or Ruth. Generally the characters convince, but the internal voices of the women convince more than the internal voices of the men.
Cold Earth has a lot of strengths. It’s well paced. It’s immersive. I felt steeped in the life of the camp with its terrible food and Nina’s largely futile attempts to improve it. Moss brings out the cold, both in descriptive text and in showing the problems it raises. The characters sleep wrapped in warm clothes within their sleeping bags. The river’s far too cold to wash in. The landscape is beautiful but in the Summer months it’s hard to sleep as it’s almost always daylight.
As winter draws on and the cold worsens the news from home gets worse too. Then it stops entirely. Has the plague wiped humanity out, or has the laptop lost its internet connection? As Jim reflects in an unposted letter to his parents:
I don’t know if vast swathes of America are desolate, flapping doors, abandoned vehicles and rotting bodies, a disaster movie with all the special effects, or if the hospitals are busy and vulnerable groups are showing increased mortality. I don’t know if it’s you or me who needs to be worrying.
The question arises as to how they’re all going to leave once the dig’s done. Is there anyone out there still to come pick them up?
Apocalypses are tricky literary territory. Here it’s nicely handled. On the one hand, the whole dig may be utterly futile with their expedition being just another failed Greenland settlement, a codicil to an already dead civilisation. On the other hand, if they get picked up on time and just had a fault in the laptop it’ll be a little embarassing to explain that they didn’t finish work because they thought the world had ended.
What all this becomes is a study of psychology under extreme conditions. Some conclude all too quickly that it’s the end of the world, almost welcoming it, while others refuse to contemplate it. Then too there is the question of whether they’re being haunted. Some are persuaded. Others think it’s absurd. How persuasive the evidence is on any of it depends on whose perspective you’re reading.
These issues are concentrated in the character of Yianni. The section in his voice is fairly short so mostly he’s seen through others’ eyes, but the strain on him is greatest. He brought Nina, who’s now not coping. He decided to bring minimal supplies to save costs. He was in charge of checking their communications and other kit. He’s not responsible for what may be the end of the world of course, but otherwise if the expedition fails – if people die – it’s down to him.
Cold Earth is a first novel. It’s not flawless. It’s an ask to believe that everyone keeps a journal or writes a letter or whatever, but I tend to think every novel is entitled to at least one free ask. Some characters are better than others, Ben didn’t fully develop for me and as noted above I thought Jim less convincing than Ruth or Nina. Catriona though interesting gets a bit squeezed out by those too as well.
There’s a blurb on the back from the Observer which comments that Cold Earth “leaves the reader in no doubt about the fragility of the human condition: not just of the individual struggling to survive a hostile environment, but of a species that is changing its home planet in potentially deadly ways”. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far.
It’s true that there are parallels between the archaeological expedition failing to cooperate in the face of a common threat and our wider human situation today. Earlier climate change is discussed as a possible cause of the original settlement’s failure. Roanoke is referenced and the settlement and the dig are both microcosms of humanity as a whole – fragile bubbles of civilisation easily lost. Even so, the novel’s strength for me was not some great insight into these issues.
What I enjoyed were the characters, the atmosphere, the Rashomon-esque perspectives and the simple desire to turn the page to see what happens next. I wanted to know if the world was ending, if they would get picked up, if they would survive.
There’s one last theme I’ll draw out before I wrap this entry up. There’s a phrase used by the archaeologists when describing discovered objects of unknown purpose, Ritual or ludic objects, significance unknown. It’s often said as a joke, but it’s also a desire to put a name on the unexplained.
The characters don’t know the past. They amass evidence that supports some hypotheses and fails to support others. So too with each other, they form hypotheses of what each of their fellow team members is thinking or feeling, but all they really do is amass evidence that supports some hypotheses and not others. The past, and other people, are ultimately unknowable.
Nina’s revenants are frightening, but they at least would imply something of humanity survives the centuries beyond fragmented objects of uncertain purpose. Given the choice between Norse undead and global pandemic, the wraith seems positively benign. This is a novel in which it’s generally far from clear whether all there is to fear is fear itself, but it is clear that fear itself is plenty to be afraid of. Our ignorance may kill us, even if nothing worse does.