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White front cover of Cold Earth by Sarah Moss - a reclining blue skeleton watermark sits behind the title

I am always convinced I don’t really care for ghost stories, but then: ‘Ooo, ghosts involved in the world wars’; ‘Ghosts in the Arctic!’; ‘Vampires turned into ghosts – now that is just cool’. I seem to be lying to myself, although I’ve absolutely no idea why. At least my lies don’t seem to be getting between me and a good story as I’ve just finished another interesting book about people affected by ghosts; ‘Cold Earth’ by Sarah Moss.

Last year I read ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver a novel about a scientific expedition to the Arctic that is plagued by misfortune and ghosts. ‘Dark Matter’ was a hit around the blogging world and I may have liked it a teeny bit (Jack and Gus <3 *mopes*). Readers looking for something similar might want to try picking up ‘Cold Earth’ as it revolves around a contemporary scientific expedition that becomes stranded in an area of Greenland which is possibly plagued by ghosts. Six students journey to Greenland on an archaeological visit to excavate a Norse site. Just as they arrive at their camp, a new virus has begun to claim a few lives in their home countries but concern is not yet high enough to prevent them travelling. This added SF twist later (predictably) provides a means for the book to further isolate its characters and knock up its plots tension so even if ghosts aren’t your thing, as it appears they so clearly are mine, perhaps the introduction of an SF conceit into a fantasy novel about scientific methods will pique your SFFnal curiosity.

‘Cold Earth’ is written in first person sections that allow one member of the team to tell their story at a time. The reader is first introduced to Nina, a rather self-conscious British woman, who is writing to her partner. As the blurb says, the framing device for these sections is that ‘each of the characters writes a letter to someone close to them’. However, the reader doesn’t fully understand the severe situation that makes them all write letters, which they can’t possibly send from their remote location, until later in the book. Almost as soon as she arrives at the dig site Nina starts having terrifying dreams about people burned alive in churches and other violent murder. As the team uncover bones Nina starts hearing noises around her tent. Perhaps the people in these dreams are haunting the site?

Her broken sleep and her growing fear make Nina a sympathetic character and personally I identified hard with Nina because of her anxiety riddled nature. It quickly becomes clear that usually she has to keep face with her partner by pretending not to be horrendously anxious about travelling or meeting new people. For those readers who are familiar with hiding and negotiating anxiety she may provide an easily identifiable ‘every woman’ character. She’s also quite funny; I warmed to her sarcastic voice quickly.

And then when Ruth, the second person from the dig team whose letter appears in this novel, starts to tell their story it becomes clear that Nina is actually not a very nice person. There have already been hints that Nina can be blunt. She often fills her foot with her mouth, for example awkwardly blurting out that one of the team is ‘not American’ the first time she speaks to him (a clear occasion of a ‘words why don’t you work’ moment). However, because she’s been established as an anxious person early on, for a while I believed she was just a little accidentally inept and this believe was furthered by the way that she responded to this early missteps by muttering an apology and then trying to pretend to be confident as instructed by her partner. However, as her tale goes on she throws out more and more things that conflicted with my own sense of appropriate/kind conversation. She’s kind of a feminist snob, for example and when she talks to Ruth about her doctorate she makes her intolerance rather plain:

‘ ‘Oh I’ve always liked Little Women,’ she said. ‘And Laura Ingalls Wilder.’

‘Hoop skirts and home baking,’ I said. ‘There were women in nineteenth-century public life, you know. Qualifying as doctors and campaigning in politics.’

She moved her gaze to my jeans. ‘I know. But there were hoop skirts and home baking too.’ ‘

Nina’s also a person that doesn’t see the worth in putting on make up when they’re in such a remote location, so when she finds that Ruth is taking care of her skin and using makeup she is baffled and makes snide remarks. I was actually concerned that Moss might end up textually backing these views of Nina’s, placing her more low maintenance attitudes in positive contrast to Ruth’s more involved beauty regime, and validating Nina while knocking Ruth down. We see these kind of remarks left to stand in fiction all the time on the assumption, I’d guess, that ladies reading books will identify with female protagonists who criticise feminine characters. Read into that what you will.

What Moss actually does is use Ruth’s letter home to show up just how blunt, hurtful and judgemental Nina appears to other members of the dig and to explain the deep reasons behind Ruth’s determination to remain so well kept while on the dig. By giving Ruth a voice Moss humanises the stereotype of the high maintenance woman and corrects the understanding readers may have gained of Ruth when she’s viewed solely through Nina’s eyes. Maybe most significantly, the novel validates Ruth by having her remind readers through her professional absorption in the dig that although Nina is intelligent Ruth is the experienced academic at the site. And aside from any correction of perception, Ruth’s story is genuinely engaging just as Nina’s has been. In the first two sections of the novel, Moss gives the reader two women who are interesting detailed characters that suck you right into both their personal stories and create a conflict about the reality of the ghostly events around the site.

It’s just a shame that ‘Cold Earth’ couldn’t maintain its tight grip on my interest as the story progresses. After Ruth and Nina’s sections Jim, an American student, gets his turn to speak. I’m afraid that Jim is rather dull. His letter home is full of description of an ordinary life, but that’s not exactly what makes his narrative dull; Moss has previously created descriptions of ordinary life and included incidental conversation without making these parts of ‘Cold Earth’ mundane. Conversations between Nina and another dig member Catriona are nothing special; they’re just moments where people shyly talk about subjects that are important to them, as they learn to be friends:

‘Do you exhibit?’ I asked. ‘These are fantastic. Have you done any here?’

‘Not yet. I’m thinking about it. It’s why I came, to be honest. Don’t tell Yianni.’

‘I won’t. But he wouldn’t mind. I came because it sounded fun. Because I thought I’d probably like remembering it later on.’

‘But you’re his friend. I’m meant to be here for work. I had a few paintings in an exhibition in Edinburgh last year. Just a local gallery. Nothing big.’ The book in her hand shook a little.

‘It sounds exciting to me,’ I said. ‘Did they sell?’

She nodded, biting her lip and smiling like a child remembering Christmas.’

I love that there are all kinds of quiet descriptions and conversations of the everyday alongside more the dramatic events of ghostly visitations and Ruth’s tragic background. Still, when it came to Jim I just couldn’t get excited about his ordinariness. I was never that involved with his letter, even though his love of a family he may be about to lose would constitute a perfectly sound emotional hook. For me, Jim’s letter provides useful plot detail as he describes the dig continuing, Nina’s increasingly erratic behaviour and growing fears about the virus in their home countries, but little of emotional interest for a reader to mine. Which feels like a mean thing to say about a character who writes so lovingly to his father but there it is anyway. Jim’s story would have been greatly improved if a ghost had tried to eat him.

While I thought Jim’s letter was unjustifiably long, considering the lack of real interest or event in it, Catriona’s is far too short for me. Catriona, the Scottish student from the Isle of Skye, is the character I wanted to hear more from and to learn more about. She befriends Nina quickly because they have things in common (their lack of interest in keeping up personal standards of dress in Greenland and their creative sides) and I thought if she had more space to talk about their friendship it might provide a valuable insight into Nina and why Catriona was beginning to believe that Nina’s ghosts were real. I also wanted to hear more from her about what painting meant to her because she sounds so passionate and afraid in some of the conversations Nina reports. And once she started to talk about her home life and her hidden love for her friend and roommate who has a boyfriend I wanted to know much more about that too. While there’s a wrap up section at the end of the novel where Nina tells us what happens to some of the characters we never find out if Catriona and her roommate get together. So, like ‘Dark Matter’ this is yet another ghost story about an isolated group which includes an unsatisfying LGBTQ strand – give me strength ghost story writers. Or better yet give me some consummated LGBTQ romance.

Then we come to the letter from Yianni, the dig’s leader, which is perhaps deliberately less coherent and explanatory as he suffers physically when they have to stay at the dig site longer than planned. As Yianni has been acting shady throughout the book I thought a little bit more exposition was called for. And when Nina reveals that Yianni died as a consequence of the dig I only wanted his personality and his motivations to have been coloured in even more by his letter. Is he really just so committed to academia and saving on costs that he endangers those around him? I feel like there must be more, but the book doesn’t give anything else up apart from a brief acknowledgement of the spark between Yianni and Nina, which I would guess is included to add some extra meaning to Yianni’s death.

Ben, the final group member writes a short letter which shows an attempt at presenting a different kind of voice in literature, one that is less personally analytical and reflective despite Ben’s academic background. Unfortunately, the rest of the book has left Ben rather blank and while I admire the attempt at widening the variety of voices that come out of academic stories I still didn’t care much about Ben by the end of the book or find the inclusion of his letter that interesting. As ‘Cold Earth’ moves forward the letters become less and less effective at drawing the reader into a relationship with each character.

I think my biggest problem with the way the book uses the letter device is that none of the letters after Ruth’s letter actively engage with, or develop, the central ideas that the juxtaposition of Nina and Ruth’s narratives set up – whether Nina is really seeing ghosts and how singular, personal narratives can leave vital gaps in a story. By exposing that Nina is different than her own narrative allows, Ruth’s letter seems to be implicitly asking the reader to become aware that personal narratives can be partial; Nina can’t see some of her own missteps so her picture of herself is wildly different from the way other people see her. After that I thought, as other personal narratives came out, this theme would be followed through with each new narrative revealing differences between the ways people see themselves and how others see them but this was not the case. An intriguing thematic avenue is cut short as the novel becomes more focused on the immediate plot.

The question of whether Nina is an unreliable, delusional narrator or whether her ghosts are real seems to naturally follow on from the idea that personal narratives can be suspect. This question is introduced when Ruth exposes the way Nina’s self-perception differs from other people’s perception of her, and later Yianni flags up Nina’s previous mental health issues, which make her appear less reliable to the other members of the dig. However, there isn’t enough of that tense interaction between different perceptions to make the reader really question Nina’s belief in the ghosts. All the elements of that kind of interaction exist in this book (people question Nina’s perception, but they also see ghostly figures, which they then try to justify away) but for me there just isn’t enough confusion surrounding Nina’s concept of reality nor was I ever particularly invested in whether Nina was or wasn’t reliable. I thought the ghosts were obviously real and every time someone suggested that the ghosts weren’t real I felt a bit like I did when I watched the first series of ‘Homeland’. All the papers kept talking about how Carrie’s untreated mental illness made her vision of reality unreliable while I felt that all her suspicions about Brody seemed easily justified and that everyone else was letting their own negative perceptions of Carrie (who isn’t the nicest or the most sensible person ever even though I think she is aces) get in the way of their judgement. The program just didn’t do enough to establish Carrie’s unreliability and neither did ‘Cold Earth’ in my opinion. Although, it’s possible that books like ‘Liar’ and ‘The Little Stranger’, which never resolve whether their narrators are reliable or not, may have spoiled me for this kind of narrative. I want serious ambiguity all the time damn it and ‘Cold Earth’ just doesn’t provide enough to keep me from siding with the woman seeing ghosts.

Still, the novel does use uncertainty and isolation to create effective confusion and tension around the virus and the state of affairs away from the dig. The group are cut off from human contact and rely on limited internet access for news of the worrying virus. Occasionally they get snippets of news which do nothing to save them from their fears, and without contact from their families they become more concerned. Eventually the internet stops updating altogether and the satellite phone proves useless. The fear generated by the virus and their cut off state makes it even more important that the helicopter scheduled to pick them up arrives. As do the ghosts, which seem increasingly real and malevolent as the novel goes on. When that helicopter doesn’t show up on the appointed day I was absolutely gripped by the group’s fate. ‘Cold Earth’ is a slow build book but does the suspense around whether the group will make it home ever build when it gets going. Unfortunately, I felt that all that tension was dispersed rather too neatly at the end when Nina explains how events resolved themselves; the promise of the build-up wasn’t realised. Then again that could just be me and my addiction to intense, unresolved ambiguity.

So, a good novel in parts, much like I found ‘Looper’ a film of good parts, but not a wholly satisfying work. ‘Cold Earth’ didn’t attach itself to me in the same way ‘Dark Matter’ did, and I thought it lost some of the potential tautness and interest that was hinted at by the first two letters along the way, but I’m not sorry I read it. It gave me three really interesting female characters to spend a few days with. Please read it and bring me all your thought about Catriona’s future life.

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Date: 2013-05-30 04:02 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Got to say that your first few paragraphs sold me hard — what a pity the second half wasn't as strong. Still sounds like a worthwhile read, though, and I'm really glad the narrative didn't align itself with the "let's bash traditional femininity" trend that crops up in so many places.


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