No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016/10: Cold Earth -- Sarah Moss

"Thinking the winters seemed worse and the summers shorter and not knowing if that was just how memory works....The change was slow. Slower than now. And they wouldn’t have known if or when it was going to change back. People are pretty conservative, you know. They don’t change until they don’t have a choice.’ [loc. 3106]

Six young people are on an archaeological dig in western Greenland, searching for evidence that might explain why the Norse settlements vanished or were abandoned. They are increasingly isolated from the outside world, where an epidemic is raging: Yianni, the leader of the group, is keen that they not waste power or time on attempting to contact friends and family. Instead, they write letters and journals: these form the bulk of Cold Earth.

Nina, the sole non-archaeologist in the group (she's a literature student with a preference for Victorian novels, invited by Yianni) believes that the site is haunted. At first the others are impatient with her. Later, each becomes a little less certain that she's imagining the sounds, the thrown rocks, the shadows. American Ruth, lately widowed, writes to her therapist. She maintains her manicure, and a brittle sanity, despite the odd occurrences. Catriona is more attuned to the natural life of the land; Jim takes refuge in his faith; Ben is the least fleshed-out of the six. Yianni is single-minded, determined not to waste his grant, obsessed by the prospect of a major discovery. He is not, in my opinion, a good leader: and it turns out that his preparations and plans are woefully inadequate.

Several of the characters reflect on whether the settlers would have noticed the gradual change in climate, as the Northern Hemisphere entered the Little Ice Age: colder weather and failing crops would explain the abandonment of the settlement. But then, so would raiders from the sea... Fearing that (as in Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead) their isolation has left them the last survivors of some global catastrophe, the six have to face their own fears as well as dealing with the fears of their companions.

I've studied the Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland, and it was fascinating to read a novel so firmly rooted in fact. ("...this is the site Norman MacDonald identified with the farm owned by Bjorn Bardarson in Bjornsaga. Late thirteenth century. The saga says his brother burnt down the byre. This byre was burnt and doesn’t seem to have been rebuilt ..." [loc. 337]) Moss evokes the treeless, desolate landscape, the oppressive silence, the changeless sea without romantic indulgence. The sense of impending menace -- both on the site and in the wider, absent world -- is tremendous. And yet the finale felt like a sudden deflation.

Still: atmospheric, gripping, recommended.

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