I discovered ‘Cold Earth’ by Sarah Moss, during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. The title intrigued me first and I picked the book up to look at it. The cover was beautiful and drew me in. It had a picture of the face of a woman hovering over a snowy landscape. When I read the story summary at the back and the comments that Jane Smiley had given about the book, I couldn’t resist getting the book. I finished reading it today and here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.
On the west coast of Greenland, a team of six archaeologists has assembled to unearth traces of the lost Viking settlements. But while they settle into uneasy domesticity, camping between the ruined farmstead and the burnt-out chapel, there is news of a pandemic back home. As the Arctic winter approaches, their communications with the outside world fall away. Utterly gripping, Cold Earth is an exceptional and haunting first novel about the possibility of survival, and the traces we leave behind.
What I think
‘Cold Earth’ is told in the form of letters written by each of the archaeologists, addressed to one of their family members. The initial letters are long and insightful – the first three letters take up around ninety percent of the book – while the later letters are more a fast-paced narration of events. There is an odd-woman out among the six archaeologists – it is Nina, the first narrator, who is not a trained archaeologist, but who is doing her doctorate in English. In some ways, Nina looks like the author herself – working on her doctorate in English from Oxford, having lived in Iceland and who talks about differences between English and Americans and how academic funding is done. (The author, Sarah Moss, has got her doctorate from Oxford, has lived and worked in Iceland and researches food in literature and the aesthetics of the North – what a resume!). The story she narrates is one of the most interesting parts of the book.
The other narrators are quite interesting too. Ruth is an American student-scholar, who is recovering from her grief but doesn’t show it, by being professional, and also by looking her best and most beautiful even in Arctic conditions. Nina’s description of Ruth at the beginning of the book, goes like this :
Her hair was perfectly tidy, as if she was expecting to be photographed, and I saw that she was wearing make-up, the kind of expensive, cunning make-up that betokens years of practice. It looked as if someone had dropped a Barbie doll on the grass. I found myself fingering a spot on my chin that I’d earlier decided didn’t exist as long as I didn’t have a mirror to see it.
If we are expecting that Ruth will be a flaky person after reading this description, we are in for a surprise later, because Ruth comes out as one of the strongest characters in the book.
There is Jim, another American student, whom Nina describes like this :
He was tall, with those big American shoulders that bespeak a childhood diet of beef full of growth hormones. ‘I’ve got a friend who’s working on the anthropology of surfing at the University of Hawaii,’ he said. He really was American.
There are also Ben (an English student studying in America), Catriona (a Scottish girl) and Yianni (the Greek-English project leader). We learn about Ben, Catriona and Yianni, mostly through the voices of others.
While the archaeologists are excavating a Viking settlement, they learn that a viral epidemic has broken out back home and they start worrying about it. At the beginning of the book, Nina says this :
It is actually a mistake to think about the news, I know, but worse when travelling, and a particularly bad idea to think about people you love and the news at the same time when you’re nowhere near either of them. There’s something about dislocation that makes the news seem horribly probable in a way that it doesn’t at home.
Unfortunately that is what the characters end up doing – worrying about the happening at home. I loved this passage, because this is what we all do when are travelling or away from home.
After the initial days, some mysterious things happen in the excavation site. There seems to be a strange presence there – there are noises at night, it appears that someone has thrown a stone at the researchers and Nina starts suspecting that it is one of the dead Greenlanders who has come out to torment them. The others disbelieve it and feel the Nina is losing her mind, but after a few days of strange occurrences, most of them start believing in it too. This reminded me in some ways of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (which I have not read, but have heard the story outline of). In one place one of the characters, pays homage to that book :
We’re all under stress but you’d hope it would take longer to start the Lord of the Flies stuff.
The voices which tell the story are very different and so it is interesting to see their different points of view and the interesting ways in which each voice depicts the other characters.
The story starts slowly with a leisurely pace and beautiful lines and we start believing that the excavation is happening in the sunny Middle East, but after sometime, the cold starts seeping into the story – both literally and metaphorically and the story turns a bit gloomy and scary. When the characters start hearing mysterious voices and mysterious events start happening in the night, and the internet and satellite phone connections go off, the story starts picking up pace and keeps us glued to the page, making us want to find out what happens next.
Nina, one of the main characters in the story, is a booklover and reads Victorian literature. At the beginning of the story, she says this :
A ‘two-person tent’, I discovered, is big enough for one small person, some chocolate and a lot of books.
There is an interesting conversation on books, between Nina and Jim later in the story, when the situation is tense. It is narrated by Jim and it goes like this :
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Nina. “Have a book to read.”
“I can’t concentrate with you looming and fidgeting like that. Have a book.”
“I’ve got a book.”
“Have one you feel like reading. I can offer you Persuasion, but you won’t like it. Villette? It’s a good distraction, set in Brussels. Lots of interiors and cooking.”
“Is it still about someone getting married?”
She looked at me as if I were a particularly foolish student.
“No men attended weddings in the making of this book. She doesn’t get married. The anti-heroine does but it’s no big deal.”
I looked along the horizon again. “What else?”
“I’ve finished Middlemarch. That’s got a wedding but they make each other miserable. All of them, really. Or there’s Return of the Native, but it’s full of wuthering heath and special effects and we’ve probably got enough of our own. What about Waverly? You’d like that. Walter Scott.”
“What’s it about?”
“Masculinity and national identity, mostly. Whether it’s better to be Scottish and Romantic or English and reasonable.”
Later Jim says :
Waverly has the kind of slow-motion plot that needs a captive audience. You’d need an intercontinental flight, probably an intercontinental flight on your own where the movie was in a foreign language, to make the most of Waverly.
It turns out that inspired by Nina or compelled by the circumstances, the Victorian-fiction-fever spreads across the camp. A little while later, Jim says this :
By 3 PM we were all reading Victorian fiction. Even Ben attempted some Dickens.
What happens after the archaeological team gets cut-off from the outside world? Are the mysterious voices really those of ghosts of Greenlanders past, who lived many centuries before? Or is it just the case of losing one’s mind, when one is put in an isolated situation? Are the members of the excavation team able to escape from the island in the end? For the answers to these you have to read the story 🙂
One more facet about the book that I want to touch upon is the way it looks. The cover picture was beautiful, the paper was thick, the fragrance of the new pages was divine, it was by one of my favourite publishers ‘Granta’ and the font was very pleasing and attractive to the eye. When I see a book like that – with a beautiful cover and a wonderful font – I can’t resist it. I have discovered that the right font is so important. When I was younger, I didn’t care much about the types of fonts used, but now I feel that I like some fonts more than others. I am glad that this book was deeply satisfying with respect to this aspect too. Do you get attracted towards books because of their font? How important do you think the cover page and the font are for attracting potential readers?
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.
Checking the temperature
The only place I really enjoyed was Iceland, so cool and beautiful and safe. Do you remember sitting on the hillside after picking all the blueberries? We could hear only birds and wind, and chocolate didn’t melt even though it was August, and then later those German backpackers told us it was thirty-five degrees in London. When I rule the world I’m going to set a maximum midday temperature of the point at which good chocolate makes a noise when you break it.
(Comment : That is a wonderful test for temperature, isn’t it? 🙂)
The Good Things
Sometimes it works to count the good things from the day before and from the day to come, even if the only thing to look forward to is eating. Tomorrow is another day but atleast there will be breakfast.
…cold is transient but dirt gets worse.
There were several very clean-looking Americans who could rise from the rocks while holding cups of instant coffee and extending large flat hands and open smiling countenances like something out of Thornton Wilder. They were mostly wearing white T-shirts which appeared to have been ironed and were probably going to go on looking like that no matter how much mud and river water came their way…Reading Henry James, you’d think it’s the Old World that’s meant to be courteous but Americans practise levels of politeness unknown to the English bourgeoisie. The prospect of trying to beat American good manners before breakfast made me feel like a bird in a net.
“I always get a shock when I look at my history. How much time I spend on-line when I think I’m working. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, if people wrote their theses faster before the internet.”
“Shouldn’t think so,” said Catriona. “Imagine all that extra time tracking down information. And travelling to libraries. Seems only fair, the internet gives us time and we give it to the internet.”
“So you’re happy here? You’re enjoying it?”
“Sure I’m happy. I like it here. But I’m usually happy, I’m happy at home too. I don’t think I have anything to be unhappy about.
Can you imagine that? Honestly? I’d like to attribute this fluorescently good mental health to stupidity, but all the evidence is against it. He’s got a full scholarship from Harvard. He might be faking it to succeed, since I shouldn’t think you get American grants and scholarships by being neurotic and miserable, which is practically a necessary criterion of success in Oxford, but if so, I think he’s kidding himself as well. I was tempted to offer him a list of things to be unhappy about, starting, perhaps, with war in the Middle East and featuring climate change, pandemics, human rights violations, the fallibility of love and the certainty of death, before moving on to the lack of slow-proved bread and good olive oil in rural Greenland.
History and Archaeology
“I liked History but it’s just stories. No one really knows what happened and what they say is based on what seems probable now. Archaeology just seems more honest. It’s there or it’s not.”
“But you interpret what is there. You can read material culture. Well, you have to read material culture. These mussel shells don’t mean anything on their own, they’re just mussel shells. We read the land and say they’re by the house, which means somebody put them there, and we eat mussels so we’re assuming that Greenlanders ate mussels, rather than say sacrificing them or bringing a pile of shells up here for some other reason. And they’re at ground level so we assume the Greenlanders put them there and it’s not that someone came along later and dug a pit and filled it with shells. Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue that there’s less slippage reading words than land.”
“I know. All that theory stuff hit archaeology while I was an undergrad. But it does have a scientific grounding, you know. There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”
I feel very far from you. Email works well enough to semaphore your survival but love is not a virtual commodity. I miss you. I need you. I want you.
James’s hands were perfect. I used to watch them when he was cooking or fiddling with something the way he did. If you look, most people’s fingers are a little warped, bent or scarred by whatever they do. My right index finger curves in, I guess from years of writing with a heavy fountain pen the way French schools like you to do. My thumb is scarred from the first and last time Papa let me open my own oyster, and recently my nails have ridged, presumably from some deficiency resulting from grief or Greenland. I’m keeping them polished but it still shows. You have that white line across your middle and forefingers, I guess from a cooking or carpentry accident? James’s hands looked as if they’d done nothing but grow in the sun, as if he’d never tried basketball or barbecuing or mending a bicycle. His fingers were straight, not knobbly at the joints, and on the backs of his hands fine blond hair shone in the sun. He used to stroke my face with his cool fingertips, brushing over my eyes closed in readiness.
The Living and the Dead
You told me the dead live on as long as people remember them, that love keeps the dead alive, but that’s not true. Love plus death equals nothing at all. Death kills, you know, that’s the truth that puts you out of a job. There’s no virtual James in my head. What lives on is my memory, which is part of me and not him. My memory cannot surprise me, call me in the middle of the afternoon with an explicit request for the evening, smile when I wake him with croissants on Sunday mornings. He is ash and bone, James. Gone.
The sea reflects moonlight and starlight, which is why the most important navigation lights are coloured red and green.
“And you’re planning the wedding?”
“Not exactly. I mean, I wish we could just have a civil partnership. I can’t see how feminists can get married.”
“Most feminists were married. Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir. Wasn’t Mary Wollstonecraft married to Shelley?
“No. Students always think that.”
(Comment : I found this dialogue interesting because I always thought that Mary Wollstonecraft was another name for Mary Shelley, who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and who married the poet Percy Shelley. I was surprised later to discover that the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft was actually the mother of Mary Shelley).
“Is that his problem?” asked Ben. “He’s blaming himself?”
“Makes sense.” Ruth handed Villette to Nina. “Though why men have to threaten women when they’re blaming themselves remains a mystery.”
The Little Things Called Life
When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook. Doctoral theses to write. And letters to read, and answer.
I liked ‘Cold Earth’ very much. It evokes the haunting, desolate beauty of the Arctic landscape and paints an interesting picture of how human beings struggle to survive in a hostile environment. I think it is a wonderful debut for Sarah Moss and I can’t wait to read her next novel, ‘Night Waking’ which is planned for release in 2011. I also would like to try reading one of her nonfiction books which is a history of polar exploration – ‘The Frozen Ship’. I also want to read Jane Smiley’s ‘The Greenlanders’ which is also about Greenlanders and why they disappeared.