The cold earth slept below; Above the cold sky shone

This has turned into the commentary that refused to die, or at any rate to be finished. I read Cold Earth back in the late summer and wanted to write about it because I found it so problematic but the words simply refused to come out right. Consequently, the review has been sitting around half-finished for months but I finally managed to complete it during the Christmas holiday. Now read on, bearing in mind that as always there are likely to be spoilers. My next post is unlikely to feature M.R. James or ghosts.

Cold Earth – Sarah Moss (London: Corvus, 2010)

I cannot recall any other novel that has so frustrated my attempts to write about it. With Cold Earth it has been almost impossible to find a point from which to begin without almost immediately feeling I should have started from somewhere else, except that when I try to start from there, I realise that I am wrong again, and should have started from over there, somewhere in the distance. And so it goes on, to the point where I think my own difficulty is indicative of the novel’s inherently problematic nature. This novel is slippery and elusive; it resists an easy description and a straightforward critical approach. This ought to be a virtue but in this instance, I think it is more an accidental than an intentional achievement, mostly because I am not convinced this novel has any clear idea of what it is trying to do. It oscillates between several points, unwilling to settle on any one of them, but neither does it persuade one that there is a need for it to keep moving. As a result it is a far less satisfying read than it could have been if the author had come at it from a different angle.

This is how Cold Earth begins: six graduate students come together to spend the brief Arctic summer digging a Viking settlement in a remote part of Greenland in an attempt to discover why the settlement failed. From the outset, it is an ill-made expedition. While Yianni, its leader, is incredibly focused on his research, the motives of other expedition members in going to Greenland are less clear-cut. At least two seem to be running away from their quotidian lives or past tragedies while one, Nina, is not even an archaeologist but a literature student, and has presumed on her friendship with Yianni to get a place on the expedition. On top of this, the expedition is dogged by mysterious incidents that occur around the camp, and experiences increasing difficulty in maintaining contact with the outside world.

This latter fact exacerbates fears that a virus has wiped out most of the world’s population while the group has been isolated in Greenland. When the expedition finishes but the plane fails to arrive at the agreed time, the group realises that it now faces death from starvation as the expedition has no emergency stores and no proper back-up plan. As they wait for transport that probably won’t ever arrive, the expedition members write to their family, friends, lovers, not knowing whether their letters will ever be received.

All of the above appears in the novel but it gives little clue as to what is really going on. And I am not the only one who is confused. Other commentators seem to have similarly struggled to characterise the book. I’ve seen it pitched as an apocalyptic thriller or as near-future sf, maybe even as a ghost story (and of those three it probably comes closest to being the last) and yet none of these descriptions really suit, though not because I believe the novel has deliberately set out to resist labelling. As I’ve described it above, Cold Earth could be a low-key mystery, a gripping account of people struggling for survival in hostile conditions, threatened by not one but two nameless horrors, but that doesn’t really fit either.

What these responses have in common is that they attempt to slot Cold Earth into some genre category or another, in an attempt to get a handle on it, but none of this works. As I’ve said, this is surely a good thing yet there are genre tropes scattered throughout the novel, like finds in a particularly productive occupation layer in an archaeological dig. However, their presence is puzzling rather than helpful; they operate clumsily and often in a highly and inappropriately visible way, nudging the plot in one direction or another rather than allowing the story to emerge in a more natural way. The most obvious example is the mysterious virus which lurks in the wings for most of the novel. It is this which has prompted some reviewers to represent Cold Earth as near-future sf but I remain unconvinced that it is quite as central to the novel as other commentators have suggested.

As the expedition gets under way the virus is a vague half-glimpsed threat, rather like swine flu in 2009 (although this novel was published before the alleged swine flu pandemic swept the world that summer). It is a possibility rather than a probability, and once the group is in Greenland they have no idea what is actually going on in the outside world. Presumably, the horror is supposed to lie in this lack of knowledge, of certainty, but it is difficult to step beyond a feeling that one is being prodded into feeling a lot more anxiety than the situation actually warrants without having more detailed knowledge of what is going on out there.

Nina, the dominant narrator, observes that:

[i]t’s usually a mistake to think about the news […] but worse when travelling, and a particularly bad idea to think about people you love and 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. (2)

She doesn’t say what it was she saw on the airport billboards but later, perhaps a little too casually, asks Catriona, another graduate student, for news. ‘Oh, you mean the virus thing?’ Catriona says, dismissing whatever is happening as a media panic and not worth worrying about. However, there remains a suppressed anxiety among the group members, each one eager to check email and, incidentally, check the news as well, but is this a genuine fear of an epidemic or is it simply homesickness magnified? Given so many of the expedition members seem to be experiencing conflict about where they want to be and who they want to be with, there is a strange irony in this concern.

Later, when Catriona, the person who initially dismissed the reports, reports the news that, ‘[t]hey think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading’ (57), no one has a clear idea what this means, though it naturally sounds threatening. Later, the diggers hear that the US epidemic has spread, with tens of thousands of people ill, but here is the paradox; they have to rely on news websites which may or may not be exaggerating the effects of the epidemic, (and again one thinks of the 2009 swine flu epidemic, when it rapidly became impossible to determine whether one might have had flu or not, or indeed to gain any sense of how unusual the illness figures might be). Once the expedition loses internet access, they have only their imaginations to help them through the situation, and inevitably their imaginations run riot, however much they keep their thoughts to themselves.

What is lacking is the opportunity to construct any kind of perspective about events. Thus, Cold Earth becomes a novel not about an epidemic, or even a novel about the possibility of an epidemic, but a novel that worries about news, about its lack and about the inability to accurately evaluate such news as is available. The one moment when a chance of outside evaluation becomes available, it is undermined by the fact that the shepherds they encounter have poor English and themselves are habitually isolated from other communities. This was, I think, meant to be ironic but it feels convenient and manipulative as a literary device. In the end, we have no way of knowing if the epidemic itself precipitates the expedition’s being marooned or whether it becomes a retrospective explanation for its having been marooned. And this presupposes that the epidemic ever happened. At the end of the novel, when Nina takes up the story again, her account seems to suggest that something did happen, but again, from her elliptical comments it’s difficult to determine what that was.

The situation is exacerbated by Yianni’s reluctance to allow team members much time with the computer. The excuses vary from day to day – using the internet is expensive, he is worried about computer viruses, he doesn’t want to waste good digging time – but in the end it comes down to this:

Partly, it doesn’t seem worth any risk to our work here just to access information we can’t do anything about. They only want to know what’s in the news out of habit. And partly, I suppose, I like the idea of isolation. It seems silly to come to West Greenland and then check your e-mail (55).

One feels a certain sympathy with Yianni’s view. It taps into a frustration with a world where people are almost permanently attached to their Blackberries and iPods, incapable of taking a step without telling the world about it while failing to notice what’s going on around them. However, Yianni’s view is imbued with a degree of asceticism which seems starkly out of place in the twenty-first century, particularly when people might have good reason to be concerned about their families.

As Nina observes, Yianni apparently ‘wants the full nineteenth-century heroic experience’ (55), with all that entails, which suggests a distinctly misplaced romanticism, particularly when one considers how nineteenth-century expeditions remained out of contact for years not through choice but through force of circumstance. There is no need to be out of touch in the twenty-first century so why enforce the lack of contact? Having said that, Nina’s comment is not so much a foreshadowing of the disaster that is about to unfold as a frantic hand-signalling of its inevitability.

Certainly, Yianni’s style of leadership owes a good deal to that of the classic nineteenth-century expedition leader. He is aloof from the others for much of the time, more so as the situation deteriorates and his first concern is for the site’s integrity rather than the diggers’ safety. He behaves more as overseer than as first among equals, doling out rations, assigning work, and working people very hard. He is unable to connect with his companions on an emotional level, failing to understand their anxieties (and in Nina’s case, he cannot bring himself to accept that her strange experiences are anything more than the product of nightmares and sleepwalking rather than being actual events). His final letter is almost exclusively concerned with explaining what he has done with the expedition’s research data and its finds, recommending suitable journals for publication, although he does, almost grudgingly, admit that the expedition is in trouble because of his poor organisation, which he tries to justify as a need to remain within his budget.

The immediacy of this note suggests that Yianni must believe that they will be found, and found soon, though equally he seems not to imagine he will personally survive, though there is no indication as to why he feels this. Did he ever really believe in the virus? One suspects not butit is not clear what else Yianni does believe in. It is strikingly obvious that of the six members of the team, he is the one about whom the reader learns least. While Nina has known him for some time, and indeed has presumed on their friendship in order to get onto the expedition, and there is some depth of friendship on which to presume, Yianni seems otherwise to have nothing beyond his work. In his letter there is an odd oblique reference which suggests that he has something on his conscience, possibly murder (this following an earlier incident where he hit Nina, holding her arm in such a way as to ensure she could not defend herself), but this, like so many other things in this novel, is never fully examined or revealed, even though it might go some way to suggesting why he is unable to connect even with his own emotions, let alone empathise with anyone else’s.

Yianni’s exhaustive documentation of the dig’s findings may remind the reader that explorers have habitually kept accounts of their journeys, not only meticulously recording scientific data and details of every aspect of their experiences, but often also keeping a personal journal. A useful if rather overblown analogy in this instance might be the journal of Robert Falcon Scott which recorded the failure of his Antarctic expedition, and the death of its members from cold and starvation. However, Yianni appears not to keep any kind of private journal nor indeed, with the one exception already mentioned, to commit himself to any kind of introspective commentary; instead, it is Nina who takes on the role of expedition memoirist, and indeed who appears consumed by a general need to keep a day-to-day record of events. It is also Nina who, according to Ben, suggests, when death seems imminent, that everyone should write final letters, though we do not know her motivation in suggesting this. Given that Nina is working on portrayals of ‘the imaginary nature of Iceland in Victorian poetry’ (36) one cannot help wondering if she isn’t as much infected by the romanticism of the enterprise as she suggests Yianni is. Certainly, her reasons for being on the dig seem rather specious: ‘I just need to write something explaining how being here helps with my doctorate. It doesn’t really, that’s the whole point, that the Vikings turned into a Victorian fantasy, but I’ll make something up. I’ve always wanted to go to Greenland […].’ (17)

Various reviews have focused on the supposed epistolary nature of this novel, the last letters home, but it’s immediately obvious that Nina’s portion of the novel is not a letter but a journal. Even taking into account the voluminous letter-writing habits of the Victorians she’s studying and apparently emulating, one could reasonably ask how a starving woman found sufficient mental and physical energy to construct a coherent account of the expedition’s early days. The ‘letter’ is supposedly addressed to Nina’s partner, David, but the tone of it suggests that its writer, real or imagined, is having to remind herself that she is writing a letter rather than simply telling a story, and at these moments, the account becomes oddly stilted.

However, the problem with this narrative device only becomes fully clear when the story is handed off to Ruth, whose account picks up almost precisely where Nina’s leaves off and the reader must surely begin to think that these are really peculiar letters. Ruth’s account seems to be more nakedly addressed to someone, in this instance the therapist helping her through the trauma of her partner’s death in a car crash, but again she tells the story as though keeping a journal rather than taking leave of the world, and indeed much of her journal is about what has brought her to Greenland in the first place. Jim’s ‘letter’, warmly addressed to his extensive family, is again a lengthy narrative, taking up where Ruth’s leaves off, and interspersed with memories of his childhood.

By this point, and on the assumption that these accounts are intended to be read as letters, the reliability of the framing device must surely called into question, to the extent that terseness now becomes a sign of potential authenticity (the letters from Ben and Catriona fit a more conventional model of farewell, while Yianni’s letter, as previously noted, is more like a will, a set of instructions to an imagined executor). More than that, the convenient dovetailing of accounts suggests that somewhere there is an editor very crudely topping and tailing each narrative, so we can have no idea what has remained ‘unpublished’. Whoever Nina, Ruth, Jim and Catriona may think they’re writing to, and in each case they are writing to a specific person or group, they’re writing for the reader who needs to be told a story. A letter to a family member or to a close friend would not, I think, be as all-encompassing as these ‘letters’ appear to be. There would not be so much establishing of background, there would not be so great a focus on people that the presumed recipients probably do not even know. The list goes on.

The inevitable question has to be asked: why so many first-person narrators (Ruth’s and Nina’s voices in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another, while Yianni and Ben scarcely feature as commentators) when the novel could as easily, and perhaps more successfully, have been told in the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator? One can only speculate on why Moss made this decision – and as author, it is of course hers to make, and to tell the story as she sees fit – but I really do not think it works. Granted, there are arguments in favour, not least that a first-person viewpoint strengthens the sense of witness and testimony. But in that case, what are we witnessing? Nina, Ruth and Jim write at greatest length and between them tell the story of the expedition up to the point where it is obvious that no plane is coming to collect them any time soon but of the period of starvation itself there is little to be said, perhaps not surprisingly. Survival is a tiring business and there is presumably little energy spare for writing.

It is unfortunate that there is no way for the reader to learn the details of their last few days on the shore and their rescue. There is no witness to the arrival of a boat, and in the novel’s afterword, written by Nina, this event is mentioned only tangentially. There is undoubtedly something attractive in the idea of using multiple viewpoints to provide an overlapping and interlocking account of events, but this presupposes that the narrative was originally constructed with this aim in mind. In this instance, the handing off of the narrative from one character to another, like a relay baton, suggests otherwise and pretty much ensures that there can be little verification of experience or impression. This is a great pity as there is a lot going on in the narrative that would benefit from a layering and cross-referencing of experience, not least the alleged supernatural incidents that occur.

The Vikings sagas, as Nina observes, included some really unpleasant and harrowing ghost stories. She paraphrases a story that William Morris allegedly liked:

about an isolated little bothy, on the side of a mountain track, a place for benighted travellers to wait for dawn. Sometimes an angry dead man came out and stabbed everyone while they were asleep. The screams carried down the valley when the wind was in the right direction and the villagers would send for the priest before investigating. (8)

This becomes particularly apposite for Nina, who turns out to be ‘sensitive’ and dreams extensively about the circumstances which brought about the demise of the settlement, witnesses historical killings, and claims to be acutely aware of presences moving around the dig site. The story she dreams is muddled but, in some respects at least, chimes with the Morris story. The other diggers variously suspect Nina of melodramatic tendencies or of being a sleepwalker. Only later do one or two of them begin to have odd experiences and wonder if she may be telling the truth, though by this point anxiety about their situation is becoming the dominant emotion, and there is the suggestion that Nina has been more anxious all along as a result of not enjoying the travelling and camping..Ultimately, we really only have Nina’s word for it that any of these experiences took place, particularly the dreams. Alongside her knowledge of the sagas, Nina is clearly well versed in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, which includes a rich repository of ghost stories, and the hauntings themselves would not be out of place in a story by M.R. James (for that matter, the archaeological setting would surely have appealed to James). There are moments, such as when Nina sees a mysterious hand pressed against the fabric of her tent, which are genuinely chilling (and I don’t mind admitting that I slept with the light on after reading that incident), but the more complicated the story becomes, such as when she dreams about past events, the more difficult it becomes to take them at face value.

We are, I think, intended to take them as being truthful even though there is no written account to verify them, and Nina is primarily a woman of the written word. She doesn’t want to dig if it means having contact with human remains, and the implication is that she is highly imaginative and thus constructing stories from the others’ interpretations of their finds. However, it is difficult to accept the idea of Nina as sensitive when she is otherwise so self-absorbed, and obsessed with material things. Instead, I’d suggest Nina’s role in the novel is to provide the reader with an alternative interpretation of the archaeological finds; in other words, she is being grossly manipulated by the author to provide narrative counterpoint. Obviously, it is an author’s job to manipulate their characters and tell a story but again, this is so obvious I can’t decide whether it is an accident or simply a feature I don’t quite understand.

However crude this manipulation, it does bring us to what I think is at the heart of this novel, and that is its focus on writing and on archaeology, two disciplines that demand the practitioner find a way under the surface, peeling off the layers one by one, telling a story in the process. ‘Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text.’ (64) Writers of fiction and archaeologists face a similar challenge in producing something that appears to make sense, out of a jumble of ideas and perceptions. What they produce may be a truth but it can never be the truth. We assume that because archaeologists deal in artefacts, solid found objects, that they deal with truth in a way that a novelist can’t. Fiction is not real. Yet, as this novel shows, if we place our trust in Nina’s dream experiences, while the others speculate about why the settlement failed, Nina actually knows but there is no tangible evidence to support her knowledge. Whereas the archaeologists can construct a story that is consonant with what they’ve actually found, but we have no way of knowing if it is accurate. At one point Jim comments that:

archaeology has to be more interested in establishing customs than instances of spontaneity. […] I mean, a particular person going swimming, even every day of every summer, probably wouldn’t leave evidence. It would only be if someone made a carving or left a record of swimming that we’d know, and even then we’d probably assume that it was because swimming was important to that society. But I have to say there would be a presumption that people in the Arctic probably don’t swim for pleasure. (75)

By employing first-person testimonies, inevitably written with an awareness of a particular reader’s presence and thus partial in their selection of topic and language, it may be that Moss is trying to point up the literally partial narrative of the archaeological report, constructed out of fragment and conjecture, and undermine the fallacy that fact is the same as truth. Or, as Yianni puts it to Nina, ‘You wanted an ending. It’s just evidence. More evidence. One way or another.’ (218)

Having said that, there is something remarkably unfinished about Cold Earth itself. It doesn’t end so much as miraculously resolve itself in ways that don’t quite make sense, given what has gone before, and at least one reviewer has suggested that the final chapter is a cop-out, given the build-up to tragedy. The group is suddenly rescued, possibly the single most important thing that happens in the novel and yet this happens off the page. We know so little of what happens at this point, which is frustrating, though I’d like to believe that the author is, however ineptly, trying to pick up that point Yianni makes about evidence. Yianni dies, alone, Scott-like in his tent, a situation that Nina, who finishes the story, edges around, much as she edges round such things as whether there really was an epidemic. We are, I think, meant to infer that there was, from Nina’s discussion with the butcher about the advisability of eating game. It seems that Nina hasn’t been particularly changed by her experience and is as preoccupied with gourmet food, much as she was before she went to Greenland. Much may be contained in comments such as ‘There used to be a little brother,’ (275) about a neighbour’s child, or am I putting in more than is really there, falling prey to Nina’s romantic notions?

I suspect, in the end, that Nina’s romantic ideas get in the way of describing the rescue because it does not fulfil  her fictional expectation. We learn that Ben, the only one still ambulant when they heard the boat, ‘went straight past you [that is, Yianni, for Nina clearly addresses him in this last section] on his way down to the beach.’ (276) Ben has surely done the sensible thing, using his energy to save the entire group, while we note that it was Yianni’s decision to live alone on the beach, so appalled was he by the idea of contaminating the archaeological site, even at the risk of his own life, and incidentally living out that ‘full nineteenth-century heroic experience’ to its furthest extent.

I may have given the impression that I don’t much like this novel but that’s too simple and straightforward a reaction to something so complex and confusing. As I said at the beginning, it frustrates me. There is so much in it that appeals but the story is composed of so many loose ends it is difficult to work out what is bona fide artistic effect and what is the result of the author’s failing to master her own story. I admit I’m getting to the stage where I’m enjoying the process of figuring out why and how it doesn’t work more than I enjoyed reading the novel in the first place. I am sure it is also significant that I’ve found it difficult to stop writing about the novel. The novel itself feels as though its author didn’t really know which thread she wanted to follow nor indeed where the novel ought to end. I’m forced to the conclusion that in this instance the multi-viewpoint first-person narrative structure was a mistake, providing the author with an illusory freedom while placing severe constraints on her ability to tell a remarkably complex story. I admire the ambition but in the end have to it down as, perhaps appropriately, an heroic failure. But, bizarrely, it is an heroic failure that is still worth reading: a paradox right to the very end.

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4 thoughts on “The cold earth slept below; Above the cold sky shone

  1. Paul Kincaid

    Great post that reminds me just how dissatisfied I was with this book. It was as if she started many things (psychological thriller, postapocalyptic tale, ghost story, etc) without ever carrying them through to the end. I never believed in the archaeological expedition, because it never seemed to work as one. As you say: no log, no record. And can you believe that any expedition in this day and age would have been allowed to set out while so unprepared? No, in the end I feel Moss was just playing with genres without ever committing to them.

  2. Debbie G

    I found myself wondering if there wasn't something fishy about the ending – the unreliability of the narrator leads one to ask if it's not some kind of self-justification or denial for something… that might have happened to allow them to survive long enough to have been rescued? Otherwise, the ending is, indeed, extremely unsatisfactory.I read this while in Britain the year before last and left my copy at a b&b. Now I rather wish I'd kept it, because I think it would reward rereading in light of the ending…

  3. Paper Knife

    @Paul, all we really know is that Yianni seems to be extraordinarily secretive about the recording of data and averse to any casual use of recording equipment (quite apart from keeping the computer in his tent, there are several references to him zipping the camera – there is only one camera on this dig? – into his pocket). Information seems to be currency for him and he is reluctant to offer it.@Debbie, my reading of the ending in part is that with Yianni having refused to leave the beach, he is pretty much left to his own devices down there, especially once the others were too weak to move, and that he starved because they weren't able to help him. I think there is a certain amount of self-justification and denial in that, but I can't see anything else they may have done that they want to step around. Whatever drives them apart at the end it's to do with Yianni.Having said that, there is a strong sense too that Nina is obliquely referring to Yianni's life having been troubled earlier on; that's the part I can't get to and which annoys me so much.

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