I have really enjoyed all of the books by Sarah Moss I have read to date and I recently read her 2009 debut novel ‘Cold Earth’. It follows a team of six archaeologists and academics who travel to western Greenland for a three week dig excavating the remains of a Viking settlement. They leave behind their homes in the United States and Europe just as a deadly flu-like virus has started to spread rapidly across the world. Archaeologists Catriona, Ben, Jim and Ruth are joined by team leader Yianni and his friend Nina, the only non-archaeologist in the group whose academic research is vaguely linked to Norse literature. However, Nina experiences night terrors and becomes convinced that the supernatural events are the result of ghosts disturbed by the group’s dig at their resting place.
‘Cold Earth’ concerns many of the same themes as the rest of Moss’s fiction output so far, namely academia, illness, isolation and remote locations in cold climates. The story is told through “final” letters written by the group to their loved ones – a very intimate first person perspective which reveals past histories and personal traits that the characters choose not to reveal to each other – for example, we learn that Ruth is still grieving for her fiancé who was killed in a car accident a year ago. The female characters seem more vividly drawn than the male characters, partly because Nina and Ruth’s letters are by far the longest, while Moss leaves the reader to carefully excavate clues for themselves about the other characters and the strange events they encounter.
Camping with hostile strangers in Arctic weather conditions hundreds of miles away from civilisation sounds like pretty much my worst nightmare, so while Nina doesn’t exactly radiate boundless enthusiasm and instant likability, I can definitely understand why she struggles so much. Unsurprisingly, the others find her infuriating and despite their remote location in open space, the atmosphere quickly becomes claustrophobic. Nina’s night terrors are fairly typical “things that go bump in the night” fare but the unusual location definitely contributes to the eerieness along with the ambiguity of her mental state. The isolated setting also means that the pandemic remains in the background for the most part but the distance and communication difficulties add to the growing sense of unease among the group about what might have happened to their families while they have been away. As the letters get shorter, the tension is ratcheted up as their worst fears about abandonment come closer to being confirmed. Consequently, the ending itself felt a little rushed but the overall effect is very well done.
‘Cold Earth’ is a sophisticated and suitably chilling suspense novel. It probably won’t help the Greenlandic tourist board much but I would definitely recommend it to those who discovered Sarah Moss through her later novels like I did.