Cold Earth by Sarah Moss (Granta)
I’ve had this on my shelf for a while, in fact the very minute I finished ‘Ghost Wall’ (my review of that is here) I immediately went and searched for anything else Sarah Moss had written. I discovered via Moss’s website that I have a lot more to look forward to – five novels, and non-fiction. I decided on Cold Earth because it’s set around an archaeological dig (I can’t quite shake the call of the trench off!).
The majority of the novel takes place at the dig site in Greenland – a grave site near a pretty desolate beach, by the shound of things. Moss evokes the Greenlandic scenery so well. The first character we meet is Nina, an academic who has come on the dig to “push herself”. Nina comes across as an introverted person, someone who very much needs to be in control of her situation. She takes refuge in novels and farmers markets (she has a thing about good food). Nina is writing a diary, or maybe a letter, describing her experiences since arriving at the site, and before. Nina is very funny in a dry way, parts of her bnarrative made me smile. In reading this we first meet the rest of the team, and get the first hints that, away from their remote research site, tsomething bad is happening in the world.
The seeping out of information from one person’s point of view is a really interesting structure – we don’t have any idea if Nina is a reliable witness or not. She certainly seems disturbed by something from the day she arrives. As the novel progresses we read more first person narrative from each of the rest of the group. Yianni – the dig leader, Americans Ruth and Jim, Yorkshireman Ben and Scottish Catriona. Like everyone, each has thier own agenda and take on things. I felt I was being challenged to pick the story out from these many threads, it kept my attention, it was a thrilling way to read! Apart from Nina and Yianni none of the group know each other (and we’re never really told where they met). We have a story about a group of people thrown together in difficult circumstances which just get harder as the story develops.
Alongside the contemporary action Moss narrates the events of a Viking raid on the Greenlanders – killing, burning and terror. As a reader it’s hard to understand if this is something Nina is seeing or dreaming, or if is written for our benefit alone.
We larn most from the letters of really Nina and Ruth, it fel like it was thier story; the haunted and the sceptic, the ‘mad English woman’ and the rational, controlled American – though a terrible thing has happened to Ruth in the recent past. Nina hears noises in the night, someone (or something) walking around the campsite, taking the covers off the dig site, pressing hands into the tent walls. As the short summer season heads toward it’s end Nina becomes more distraught and Ruth (in public at least) ever more dismissive of Nina’s reports. The others, well, maybe they start to believe they are being haunted, that there is something else there with them. It is cold and dark, the food is running out, and the team look forward to the plane coming to pick them up and take them back to civilisaton
However, there is an epidemic at large in the world – it is not specified what the disease is, but it’s spreading. When the researchers leave for Greenland it’s unclear how bad it will get, everyone is worried. They have limited communication with the world outside their dig site, one laptop – closely guarded by Yianni – and a sat phone which is never used (it may not, suggest some, even work). The only people the research team meet are a couple of shepherds who come and go quickly, and live miles away. They are truly isolated in a way it’s hard to imagine…and by the end of the book, as they wait for the plane, this isolation feels absolute and quite possibly hopeless.
This story couldn’t be any further up my street if it tried. I am a little bit bit addicted to the ‘supernatural thriller’ – whether the supernatural part of it is overt or simply suggested. What has Nina heard or seen, has she imagined it all? Imagined haunting or not, Cold Earth is a gripping, breath-holding read.
I bought my beautiful pre-owned paperback edition from the Ninja Bookshop. From the stark white cover the title leaps out at you, with creepy tendrils – roots? – coming off the lettering. Then you see the skeleton, and, when you get the book into a certain light, more shiny ghostly roots. As if that wasn’t enough the edges, in contrast, are a bright winter-sky blue. I do love a good book cover!
[An aside: In Wales, camping under Mt Snowden one early spring in a howling gale, I once had a sheep try to get into my tent in the small hours. It was absolutely terrifying (and then hilarious) but you realise that in a tent there is less than nothing between you and any threat outside, and the first thing you think of, as you wake up to the strange noises, is not a sheep].