Sarah Moss: Cold Earth (2009)

Cold Earth

Last summer I read Michelle Paver’s excellent ghost story Dark Matter and Max pointed out in a comment that the description reminded him of Sarah Moss’ first novel Cold Earth. Both novels are set in the North, under extreme conditions and both use a similar technique. The protagonists write diaries and/or letters. In Cold Earth the story is told from six different subsequent points of view, while there is only one in Dark Matter.

Cold Earth is the story of an archeological dig, set in a remote part of Greenland. Six young people, under the supervision of one of them, start excavating the remains of a Norse society. Something has wiped out that society, a fact that unsettles our diggers early on. At the same time they are aware that a pandemic is spreading and communication with the outside world isn’t possible. They are not only afraid that their families and friends might die but that nobody will come and get them once the date for their departure arrives. If  that wasn’t enough already, one of the six young people, Nina, the only one who isn’t an archeologist but working on a PhD in literature, pretends that the site is haunted and shows signs of either severe trauma or delusion.

The story is told from the point of view of the six people. The first part, Nina’s part is the longest. She’s the one who reacts the most to the circumstances. She has weird dreams at night that seem to come directly from the past, she is certain that someone or something walks around the camp at night. The others react to that in many different ways. There are those who are affected and those who just find her a pain in the ass. But the letters or journal entries all show that whether they believe in the ghost theory or in the possibility that Nina’s going mad, they have a hard time coping. Some have come carrying a past loaded with grief and sorrow others are badly affected by the idea that the pandemic is killing off their families and friends.

The longer they stay, the colder it gets and they have to expect the worst, namely that nobody will come and get them and that they will run out of food and not be sufficiently prepared to face  the Arctic winter.

I’m sure if I hadn’t read Dark Matter before, I would have liked this better. The elements which are similar, the ghost story parts, are much more scary and convincing in Dark Matter, I even thought that Paver did a better job in using a ghosts story as a means to illustrate fragility of human existence, and the influence of extreme weather conditions and surroundings on people. I also liked the structure better. Cold Earth starts strongly with Nina’s point of view, which takes up almost a third of the book, but the subsequent chapters, narrated by the others are shorter and shorter, as if she’d run out of breath. Of course you could say she chose that approach to create tensions but I felt some parts were too short to be entirely satisfying. What is very well done in Sarah Moss’ book is how she includes the dimension of society. Paver focusses more on the individual, Moss more on society and groups. I found it impressive how she described how hellish the wrong company can be. I’m not exactly a gregarious person and if I choose company it really needs to be the right one. I could sympathize with Nina who felt she wasn’t only among strangers but among people who were even a tad hostile.

I guess it depends on personal preference whether you will like Dark Matter or Cold Earth better. I could relate more to  the idea of a lonely person thrown into an awful situation than to a group facing disaster. I’m glad I read them both, as they are both extremely good, I just loved one more. If, like me, you like extreme and well-captured settings, you shouldn’t miss either one of tem.

If you’re interested here is Max’s very detailed and insightful review.