“Centuries of People”: Sarah Moss, Cold Earth


Mass graves again. I realised I was holding my breath and tried to exhale.

‘You wouldn’t get mass graves with all these isolated farms,’ said Jim. ‘And there are a few where whole families have been found in the beds or around the house.’

My hand shook. ‘Can we stop talking about epidemics, please? I’m going to the loo.’

I put my trowel down and stood up. Everything went black and I stood there, trying to remember how to breathe. It’s like driving, breathing. The more you think about how to do it, the harder it gets. I stepped blindly over the fallen walls and looked down at my pink tent and thought about the books inside it. I could hear the running river and the wind over the tall grass outside the hall, where centuries of people throwing things out made the soil rich and the wild plants strong.

I’ve basically been reading through Sarah Moss’s oeuvre in reverse order. The first books of hers I read were Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost ChildrenAlthough I admired them a lot, my enthusiasm was tempered by their emotional reticence. Still, I was interested enough to read on, which meant going through Moss’s back catalog, which I have found very rewarding. With Cold Earth (2009), her first novel, I have now completed that project–and in a way it feels like coming full circle, because her most recent novel, Ghost Wall, engages with some of the same themes, particularly ways in which the stories we tell about the past haunt or infect the way we think about the present.

ghost-wallCold Earth literalizes that haunting in a way that Ghost Wall doesn’t quite: in the newer novel, the spirits animated by artifacts of the past are those of contemporary people acting on what they think they’ve learned, while in Cold Earth Moss teases and frightens her characters and her readers with the possibility that the dead still move among us. Imagination? Delusion? Projection? Perhaps–but to at least one member of the team digging in their remote archaeological site on the coast of Greenland, it is a near certainty that their work has disturbed something more than relics and bones.

The discomfort that spreads from her conviction that they are not alone is exacerbated by the team’s growing unease about current events: during their rare check-ins online, they follow reports of a spreading contagion. “The virus,” one of them reports early on: “they think it’s mutated and it seems to be spreading.” “It’s spread,” they learn a little later; “Several thousand people in the Washington area, another cluster in Charleston and a scattering of outbreaks up the East Coast.” Then it’s in the UK — and then the websites stop loading, and they can’t get the satellite phone to work. Is it just technical problems, or has the crisis debilitated the human agencies still needed to keep servers  up and running? How worried should they be, and should they be upset or relieved that, in their isolation, they are probably safe from infection? Then when the plane that was supposed to collect them doesn’t arrive, their remote location ceases to be a refuge and what had been largely a matter of psychological endurance becomes a struggle to survive the encroaching winter and the depletion of their resources.

cold-earth-2Cold Earth is intense and suspenseful, but it is not a thriller or a horror novel, or (except indirectly) a dystopian one. Moss focuses above all on her characters–the novel is told by several of them in turn, in the form of letters they write to people back home–as they puzzle over their finds and try to interpret how their predecessors in that location lived and died. Each of them has brought a personal history to Greeenland: each of them, in a way, is like an archaeological site of a different kind, and there is something at once comforting and devastating in the way Moss, by setting them down among the ruins of a past community, evokes the inevitable and unpredictable continuity of death. Most of us probably imagine that “history” is something that happens to other people, but by the end of Cold Earth all of its characters have been forced to see they too will eventually be the ones in the ground. The chilling question the novel provokes is whether there will be anybody left to dig them up and wonder about their lives.

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