Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
This novel, published by Granta, is lovely to behold. What you can’t see are the beautiful turquoise blue page edges, and the glossy white fibrils of grassy roots insinuating their way through the bones of the skeleton curled up underneath the title. Luckily I enjoyed reading the book as much as I liked looking at it. The author Sarah Moss is an academic and is an expert on the literature of the far north, and food in fiction. This, her debut novel amazingly combines both!
A team of archaelologists are all set to dig in Greenland at the start of the brief arctic summer. They will investigate the remains of a Viking settlement which appears to have been the scene of a massacre. There’s Yianni, the team leader, plus Ruth, Catriona, Jim and Ben, all experienced archaelogists, and then there’s Yianni’s friend Nina. Six very different personalities and all with baggage. They will have to get along together all summer until the plane arrives to take them out. Things get tense right from the start. Nina is a neurotic and prickly English postgrad who is also a real foodie – she is bitterly disappointed at Yianni’s idea of catering for the dig:
Lunch was water biscuits and cream cheese rendered no less nasty by alleged smoked salmon flavouring, followed by powdery red apples.
‘This is all the fresh fruit,’ said Yianni. ‘When these are gone, it’s dried fruit and vitamin supplements.’
‘Then why on earth did you bring tasteless American apples when the English season is just beginning?’ I asked. …
‘They’re just apples, Nina, and there are some lemons.’
‘To ward off scurvy,’ suggested Catriona.
‘And a ration of rum?’ asked the fake American, who turned out to be called Ben.
The first third of the novel is told through Nina’s voice. It would be fair to say that she obsesses about the food, telling us about every meal they have. Also from her first night onwards, Nina hears and sees things – are they the ghosts of the dead Vikings disturbed from their peaty graves?:
It was grey and still. No wind, but the outline of a hand clear on the canvas inches from my face, and the noise of breathing still although I was – was I not? – awake. I froze. The hand slid silently down the tent. Nothing moved away. It was still there, silent, waiting, breathing. I lay quite still, in out, in out, in out. It was still there and I was still there. I was not asleep. I should have called, screamed, but I daren’t not move. In and out and in and out. I sat up and the hand was back, higher now, the thing kneeling or standing over me, and I found breath and screamed and then again. The hand went, but a guy line pinged as something caught on it, and rustled away.
Towards the end of Nina’s section, we begin to realise that all is not well back home. There is an epidemic of an unnamed virus beginning to take hold. The guys start to become obsessed with the lone laptop, and as the days turn into weeks, communicating with outside world becomes temperamental, then effectively stops. It is at this point, that the narratives from the team become less the story of this adventure, and more a last letter home as they begin to realise that the plane may not be coming. Note – this is not plot-spoiling, the blurb on the back of the book tells you all of this.
As the team members take their turns to drive the narrative onwards, and say their goodbyes, we find out all about them and their relationships to their loved ones. Underlying this is a real sense of the past returning to haunt them, as they speculate why the Greenlanders disappeared. The ghosts seem very real, almost straight out of the Icelandic sagas or Beowulf.
Admittedly, the six characters are slightly stereotypical – but if they’d all got on with each other, the drama would be lessened greatly. I found it a totally gripping read which ticked many boxes for me given my predilections for myths and legends and anything dystopian. A brilliant fiction debut. (9/10, book supplied by the Amazon Vine programme)