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.

26 thoughts on “Sarah Moss: Cold Earth (2009)

  1. Part of what I liked in this (though I agree with you that some of the later voices are weaker) is how while we’re in Nina’s narrative it’s very easy to sympathise with her, to empathise with her unhappiness at how some of the others treat her.

    It takes a while, took me a while anyway, to realise quite how annoying she’d actually be to share a camp with. She’s an amateur, they’re professionals; she has a bizarre prejudice against Americans, there are Americans in the group; she thinks being neurotic is charming which it may be in London but less so when you’re one of a small isolated team; she’s out of place – basically she just shouldn’t be there both for her sake and for everyone else’s.

    So, yes the others are a tad hostile and Nina’s situation isn’t a great one. But equally if I were a professional archaeologist, isolated and potentially in danger and trying to do a difficult job in very stressful circumstances, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to share a camp with Nina.

    • I agree with you. Especially the hostility against Americans was quite off-putting. At the same time she was the only one who questioned what they were doing. In the end she proved surprisingly resilient. A bit like some hypochondriacs who outlive everyone.
      It was unfortunate to read this so close after Dark Matter as there are so many similarities at the same time it didn’t feel repetitive, the angles were so different. I’m glad you made me pick it up.

  2. Reading another book can really impact a later read–esp if you can’t help but compare the two. I always wish I’d read Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education first before Madame Bovary

    • If there’s a lot of time between the two it might be different but it certainly does affect. i think it’s even worse when you read favourite book of an author and the another one later, that’s why I often don’t pick up another one by an author if i eally loved somethig.

  3. I was really curious about this when it first came out–I even checked it out from the library, but in the end I didn’t get it read–I think it is a book you have to be in the right mood for, and at the time I wasn’t. Like you I really liked the Paver book. So I am still curious about this and might give it a go at some point, but I’m glad to have read your thoughts on it first! I have a feeling that Nina might be a little off-putting for me as well.

    • She’s quite annoying but you feel for her as well. Being an outsider with issues isn’t easy and she seems more perceptive than the others.
      I think you would like it. It’s very well done, I just thought Paver was darker.

  4. Very interesting premise, but probably not for me. I remember your review of Dark Matter and couldn’t read that one–too disturbing.

    Caroline, I’m curious–about how many books do you read in a month’s time? I’m amazed at how many you’re able to read and review in a short time.

    • This one has no gruesome elements and isn’t so scary so you might like it more.
      I have no clue how much I read, I don’t really track it and, this must come as a surprise, these days I barely review 50%. I read a lot of German and sometimes French non-fiction and those I read pretty quickly. I guess about 2 – 3 per week?

  5. Certain elements of the plot sound fantastic. The idea of an isolated group in freezing temperatures encountering a supernatural force while a pandemic rages in the outside world seems to elicit a certain sort of dread.

  6. Like you, I really loved Dark Matter. So I’m half tempted by this as I certainly relate to the notion of difficult groups being intolerable, and I like the archeological premise. But if you thought Dark Matter the better book, I doubt very much I’d disagree!

    • I think that like you you’d find Nina’s story quite interesting and certainly well done but since you’ve read Dark Matter first I could imagine this one would pale in comparison.
      You could always try another of her novels first.

  7. Hi, Caroline,
    I read this Cold Earth in 2011. I liked it very much for the atmospheric, wildly different setting. The plot was interesting, but, as in Anna Kim’s novel, what Moss is able to do with setting is what grabbed me and what kept me reading this book.
    Judith

    • I’d be so curious to hear what you’d think of Dark Matter. Same setting but so creepy.
      I haven’t read Anna Kim, I’m not sure I would like her. I remember your review.

  8. I haven’t read either of these yet. I remember the other review and I think I would enjoy both of them. This past August I flew over Greenland. It looked beautiful but cold.

    • I think you’d find things to apreciate in both. It would depend on your mood. This was a first novel while Paver, although it was her first novel for adults, has written a lot for children. I thought she was more assured.
      I’m sure I’d find Greenland interesting but I’d never want to go on an expedition there. No cold for me, please.

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline! I read this book when it came out and I loved it. When I read your review of Michelle Paver’s ‘Dark Matter’, I remembered Sarah Moss’ book. I hope to read Paver’s book sometime and compare. I still remember this sentence from Moss’ book which I liked very much – “When I rule the world I’m going to set a maximum midday temperature at the point at which good chocolate makes a noise when you break it.”

    Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I didn’t rememeber you’ve read it as well.
      That’s a terrific quote, I agree. I noticed it too when I was reading the book.
      I hope you will read Paver. I’d love to know what you think of it. Maybe since you read this first you will prefer it?

  10. Pingback: Sarah Moss: Bodies of Light (2014) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  11. Pingback: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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