I finished Cold Earth at lunchtime yesterday, a day where the sun was shining through my living room windows, warming my hair, and causing me to shed my ever-present (since the pandemic started, really) hoodie. And yet, I shivered as I read the final pages. It’s just that sort of book, and really the best sort of book to read when it’s not yet spring but no longer quite winter; that limbo season we are known for in this part of the province, this part of the country.
It’s a book that is about 10 years old, but it’s been on my to-read list since I recently saw it on this Book Riot list, 10 Books That Take Place in a Desolate Landscape because if that just isn’t my jam, I don’t know what is! And yes it’s a book about a pandemic (I’m back on that bullshit, because of course I am) but in all fairness in Cold Earth the virus is much more peripheral than in books like Station Eleven or Severance, both of which I highly recommend if you are, like me, fascinated by plague fiction. And desolate landscapes.
Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of a team of six archaeologists on a dig in western Greenland, there for a few weeks in summer to excavate a medieval Norse settlement. The story evolves through journal entries and letters home, and we hear from each character in turn, beginning with Nina. Nina is a somewhat reluctant participant in the project, the only non-archaeologist, and shortly after arrival she begins having dreams. Dreams that are filled with violence and destruction, dreams that stay with her in the morning light. She begins to hear footsteps and voices, someone or several someones moving about in the night, taking her boots, messing with their dig site, and she becomes more and more convinced – and terrified – that something is present there. The others, with a job to do, are somewhat sympathetic at first, but mostly not interested in her ramblings, and see her as a threat to the project.
In the backs of all their minds as they work are thoughts of the virus that is moving through the rest of the world. Not, as of yet, rapidly enough to shut down travel (obviously, they made it to Greenland) but it’s enough of a worry for most of the team to want to check in regularly with family and friends via email. Eventually the websites stop responding and the team begins to wonder if they’ve lost contact not due to an equipment or internet problem, but what could ultimately be an end of civilization as they know it problem, and of course, what does that mean for the plane that is to bring them home again?
Part ghost story, part love letter to a world and worlds past, this is the kind of book that gets deep into your bones. Unintended archaeological puns aside, it’s the kind of book where you too can experience the weather, the freezing cold, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you are confronted with the utter darkness of a Greenland night, exposed tents with only the rocks and the water, a few sheep, and the subject of Nina’s horrifying dreams. Moss does an incredible job of conjuring ghosts – real or imagined – with an urgency that transports you. Stylistically, too, the book feels urgent. Each section is told from one of team member’s point of view, and while we hear first from Nina, then Ruth, then Jim, by the time we are hearing from Ben, Catriona, and Yianni, their sections are short, tense, and filled with the imagery and language of survival.
I loved this book. I loved its themes of love and loss, unspoken grief and unresolved pain. And I loved its look at worlds that can change seemingly in an instant, juxtaposed with what remains in the earth forever. Forever, or at least until scientists dig it out and remove it for further study. Human lives have always been fleeting yet they leave indelible marks on those who are left, and I adore how Sarah Moss teases out those paradoxes throughout the book.
If you’re curious about Cold Earth – and I hope you are now! – I also read Ghost Wall by the same author which is also brilliant and evocative and creepy and perfect. And highly recommended.