“Centuries of People”: Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

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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 the 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.

“Intolerable Noise”: Sarah Moss, Night Waking

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I stood up and slammed my hand into the mattress next to his head. He screamed. I shook his cot.

‘Moth, for fuck’s sake go to sleep right now. If you don’t go to sleep this minute, I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to take a knife and kill myself. Is that what you want? Mummy will be dead and then you’ll be happy.’

My hands on the cot rail are shaking. I must not attack him. Must not touch him or I will put my hands round his neck and kill him. I cannot leave because I would never come back and I cannot stay because I am about to pick him up and ram his head into the wall until he stops making that intolerable noise.

‘Anna, what the hell are you doing?’

Giles grabbed my shoulder. I stopped myself before my fist connected with his arm.

‘I want three fucking minutes to myself. I want to pee. I want to have a drink of water. I want to brush my hair. I used to give lectures and write my book.’

It is apt, if unfortunate, that I’ve had trouble making my way through Sarah Moss’s Night Waking because I haven’t been sleeping well; by the time I’m done with reading I have to do, and do attentively, for deadlines, I have little energy left to concentrate on anything but a bit of Buffy. I’ll blame that same mental fatigue for my tendency to focus on the novel’s contemporary story without working as hard as the novel deserves to integrate it thematically with the interleaved historical material or to give due diligence to the epigraphs from various sources about child development.

I didn’t read Night Waking so badly that I couldn’t tell its parts are clearly all related, that they knit together into a pattern about the complexity of mother-child relationships and about motherhood as an intensely fraught role, both personally and socially. I just can’t articulate what that pattern is. Or maybe their collective point is not that intricate after all: maybe it is that, though we keep trying, it is impossible to “properly” understand or diagnose or theorize or perfect parenting: that really we all just muddle through in whatever way our historical and other circumstances dictate, and that there will always be someone there to judge us for doing it wrong even as there will always be at least a faint hope that, whether because of or in spite of us, things will turn out okay. night-waking-2

Alternatively, maybe my reading was unbalanced because Moss wrote Anna’s voice so well that she overpowered the other more overtly intellectual aspects of the novel. I loved Anna–and by that I don’t mean that I liked her necessarily, though I mostly did. In many ways, actually, she is just the kind of unlikable heroine that many critics celebrate today: she is fierce, angry, bleakly witty, dangerously honest about her hatred of the daily demands and inanities of her small children. She is a good mother (my epigraph notwithstanding), by which I mean she loves her children in the profound, helpless way that has also  been my own experience of parental love; she is vigilant and responsive and self-critical. But she is also bored, resentful, and near despair at the chasm between the life she once lived–self-directed, intellectually challenging, contemplative–and her current mind-numbing isolation and exhaustion.

Night Waking takes place on the fictitious Hebridean island of Colsay. Anna, her husband Giles, and their children Raph (Raphael) and Moth (Timothy) have moved there from Oxford so Giles can do research on puffins and also so that they can oversee renovations to a family cottage they plan to (and eventually do) rent out. In theory, and sometimes in reality, Anna is finishing a book about the paradoxical relationship between the Romantic idealization of childhood and the contemporaneous trend towards putting children in a range of ‘care’ or oversight facilities: “boarding schools, orphanages, hospitals and prisons.” She sometimes discusses her research, and Moss even includes bits of the book, with Anna’s reflections on and revisions to it–she captures the academic tone and the self-consciousness of the academic writing process perfectly.

bodiesAt first most of the tension of the novel comes directly from Anna’s personal situation, but when Anna and the children uncover a baby’s skeleton while digging in the garden, further layers accumulate. Anna becomes preoccupied with finding out the baby’s identity and thus gets drawn away from her book and into research on Colsay. We learn about the island with her, from her sources, and also from the 19th-century letters that make up yet another facet of the novel. The letters–which Anna eventually reads and incorporates into her work–are from May Moberly, younger sister of Alethea Moberly, the protagonist of Moss’s later novels Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children. (I somehow hadn’t realized that May’s story came first. On her website, Moss says “I knew quite a lot of May’s story when I finished writing Night Waking, although most of it wasn’t part of that book.”) May, a trained nurse, has been sent to Colsay, part of what turns out to be an unwelcome intervention into the island’s high rate of infant mortality.

All of these elements, and also Anna’s involvement with the family who come to Colsay to vacation in the cottage, are individually interesting and collectively resonant. What came through to me most clearly, though, was Anna herself: her struggles with guilt and boredom and sleeplessness–with the sometimes overwhelming conflict between love and desperation–while more extreme than my own, were completely, unhappily, familiar. As Night Waking ends, Anna’s life is changing for the better. If I’d read the novel fifteen years ago, I would have rejoiced in that cautious optimism, eagerly embracing the promise that balance can eventually return, as well as the message that it is both right and possible to reconcile being a parent with being (by) yourself. But now that my own children’s night wakings are long over and they are nearly independent, I am amazed and a bit frightened by how disorienting it is to face the very thing Anna and I both sometimes yearned for: their absence. Who knew–certainly Anna can’t imagine–that a room of one’s own just might, eventually, feel so empty.

“A Better Way of Travelling”: Sarah Moss, Names for the Sea

I recognise my own distrust of Icelandic tourism, of the collector’s desire to tick off geysers and volcanoes and midnight sun on some kind of Lonely Planet checklist, totting up experiences like any other commodity. There must be a better reason to travel, a better way of travelling, than the hoarding of sights your friends haven’t seen … I want to sense the long-dead outlaw’s dread of the dark, not to be told about it in an interpretation centre. I want, I suppose, an unmediated Iceland, even though I know there’s no such thing.

Sarah Moss writes wonderfully about her family’s stint in Reykjavik, the result of a longstanding fascination with “northerly islands” which, in combination with another longstanding desire, for her family to experience life “abroad,” led her to seize an opportunity to teach at Iceland’s National University.

Moss is wry and self-aware and sometimes funny about her difficulties adapting, both to Iceland’s culture and customs and to the more general condition of being an “outsider.” She frankly admits her own peevishness–with the food especially, but also with the traffic, the weather, the housing. Names for the Sea is not, this is to say, a romanticized travelogue or a promotional brochure, even tacitly. Indeed, far from making me dream of someday seeing Iceland for myself, Names for the Sea killed quite dead my faint previous interest in ever going there–even though as an ordinary tourist I could presumably avoid some of the particular challenges Moss and her family encounter with shopping, furnishing, driving, and just generally living.

had sometimes wondered about Iceland as a place to visit, mostly because I know a few people who are from there or have been there and have made it sound pretty cool, and also because Iceland has a reputation for bookishness (for instance, there’s its tradition of a “Christmas book flood” or Jolabokaflod–imagine having a whole word for that!). Unlike Moss, however, I am not instinctively drawn to northerly places. Halifax is quite far enough north for me! (And despite its climate Halifax is not even very far north — it is approximately as far south as Portland Oregon, which I actually find quite disorienting. That just goes to show you that where weather is concerned, latitude isn’t everything!) Moss does nothing to reassure me about how harsh and unforgiving Iceland’s climate is: how long, dark, and relentless its winter, and how fleeting its spring and summer. “By November,” she reports,

it’s been winter for a while. We recognise winter not just because the colours of land and sky and sea have changed, although the greens and blues have turned to shades of grey, but because there is less light, even in the middle of the day. The sun rises at a shallower angle every day, every day the zenith is a little lower, every day sunset is a little further south, as if the sun is running out of power. . . . There is snow, and then rain again, and then more snow. . . . I try to remember the midsummer light, and to know that as the days are shortening now they will lengthen after the solstice. Life will come as surely as death. It’s hard to believe, my Arctic theology.

Moss is also eloquent about the hazards of the road:

Icelandic driving is terrifying. Nobody indicates. Even bus drivers accelerate towards junctions and then jump on the brakes at the last minute, sending passengers and shopping crashing to the floor. People swerve across lanes to leave the freeway from the inside. Icelanders have one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership and usage in the world, and they don’t stop when they’r driving. . . . In one month we have seen four major accidents, the kind that write off cars, trigger airbags and leave glass and blood, and in one case a baby’s car-seat, on the road.

Since driving is right up there with winter on my list of things I hate, and driving in winter is one of my biggest sources of anxiety here where most (!) people at least try to follow the rules of the road–well, let’s just say that wherever Reykjavik once was on my bucket list, it’s a lot further down now.

And yet. Though it sounds as if Iceland is not for me, Moss’s life in Iceland, while full of difficulties, is not, for her, altogether without its charms. She and her family are intrepid enough (or stubborn enough, or both) to explore the country’s alien landscape, including its active volcanoes–they are there during the disruptive eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. Moss herself is also determined to learn as much as she can about this strange place she has come to, so she goes out of her way to meet people with expertise in everything from Icelandic politics to local cuisine to elves–“I find the idea of talking to someone about elves embarrassing,” she admits, but nonetheless she braves the trip out of the city to do it, and the conversation is as odd and interesting and faintly disconcerting as you’d expect.

I particularly enjoyed her chapter on knitting, which apparently nearly everybody in Iceland does:

On buses, in restaurants, during meetings, in class. In the first week of term, several students came into the classroom, put down their cups of coffee, took off their coats, hats and scarves and pulled out laptops, power cables, poetry anthologies, knitting needles, and wool. I didn’t, I decided, mind. . . . I can crochet while watching a film. . . . Icelandic undergraduates, it turned out, can knit while drinking coffee, taking notes on their Apple Macs and making enlightening contributions to discussions of Lyrical Ballads. I watched the pieces grow from week to week, comforted, somehow, by the progress of socks and matinee jackets as we worked our way through from Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ towards The Prelude, as if the knitting were a manifestation of accumulating knowledge. Colleagues knit in meetings, which seems a far more constructive use of time than the doodles produced in the English equivalent. I wonder if anyone would say anything if I tried in committees at home, instead of drawing borders of trees and wonky geometrical patterns around the minutes.

(She should try it, if she hasn’t already! So far nobody has made any objection when I take my crochet out in our department meetings. My theory is that they realize it’s better for everyone there that I manage my stress.)

I also enjoyed her account of her attempts to improve her Icelandic by watching Icelandic films and reading Icelandic fiction, both of which turn out to be good lessons, for a literature teacher, about how much tacit knowledge it really takes–how much cultural capital and “insider” experience–to make sense of what you’re reading and seeing. “Rain drips from everyone’s hair,” she says of the movies, those set in the Middle Ages blurring into the documentaries of early 20th-century life;

Children run in and out of turf houses through low doorways, like rabbits emerging from and disappearing into burrows, and every so often one of the men says something apparently proverbial, like ‘the dark horse runs longest’ or ‘the fog hides many secrets’ and hits another man on the head with an axe … It’s like listening to a tale told by a drunk; I am fascinated, mostly by the landscape, but have no idea what the narrative logic might be. The subtitles are little help because there seems to be no relationship between what people say (not much, mostly about farming) and what they do (mostly farming but sometimes murder).

She does not fare much better with novels. Detective fiction, she observes, is “obviously written with translation in mind,” so it is full of explanations that make comprehension easier for her. Literary fiction, on the other hand, “cause[s] me the same puzzlement as the films”:

I simply don’t understand why the characters do what they do, can’t see the connection between speech and action. In apparently gentle novels of bourgeois life, characters rape and kill with no warning, no reflection and little reaction from anyone else. I find the violent episodes entirely unpredictable, never know at the beginning of a paragraph if the person coming through the door is bringing coffee or a crowbar to the person sitting at the table.

Iceland is “distinctive for its low crime rate,” so she wonders why its fiction and film feature so much “bloodletting”–“Are Icelanders simmering with rage under their jumpers?”

I admired Moss’s perseverance: there is something endearing, even, about her determination to understand, to make sense, not just of these opaque texts but of every aspect of Icelandic life. I’m not sure this is “a better way of travelling” (or of travel writing–the result was sometimes a bit more detail than I actually wanted about the country’s history, politics, or finances) but it is clearly her way: Moss is driven by intellect, or perhaps her need to ask and get answers about everything was a way of compensating for the difficulty she had simply being and feeling in a place where everything is so unfamiliar. I appreciated that she never glossed over those difficulties, and also that for all her inquisitive effort Iceland remained, in some ways, just out of reach for her: the book offers no magic moment of recognition, no epiphany.

Perhaps Iceland’s resistance to Moss’s quest for understanding explains why her fascination with the place endured in spite of everything, even bringing her family back to visit soon after they moved back to the UK, to move once more among “landscapes that simply don’t make sense, mountains that the mind can’t read.” The way Moss writes about that landscape is the only thing about Names from the Sea that nearly changes my mind about travelling to Iceland:

It’s like watching God in the act of creation, passing through fells of bare naked lava and rock, like seeing the world before it was finished. We’re on day four of Creation, moving back towards day three, a world made of sky, fire, earth and water with none of the complications that came later. The mountains are red, as if the cinders haven’t yet cooled, or the black of embers, carved by valleys where it seems that if you watched long enough, you’d see that the rock is still flowing. The elements are translated here: what is solid looks like liquid, rock like water, earth like fire.

I lack Moss’s hardiness and spirit of adventure, though, so what Names for the Sea ultimately convinced me to do was to order another of her novels. I have yet to read anything by her that I haven’t both enjoyed and admired.

“With Every Love, a Loss”: Sarah Moss, The Tidal Zone

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You just discovered your children are mortal, how could you not want another baby, a back-up baby, an insurance against childlessness. You want a third chance, the magic occasion to get it all right. But you can’t get it right, darling. With every birth, a new death comes into being. With every love, a loss. There is no back up, no alternative, no chance to change whatever plot we are living.

My daughter Maddie was around 2 years old when we got a call from the daycare saying she’d broken out in hives after eating eggs for lunch. Before long we were at the allergist’s office holding her hands to keep her from scratching at the welts rising on her arms from the “prick tests” that revealed the bad news: not only is she highly allergic to eggs, but she is also very allergic to peanuts and most tree nuts. Other parents who have gone through this testing will understand how the world, and your parenting, changes afterwards: food–not just a necessity but also the center of so much of our family and social lives–becomes something difficult; shopping and outings and birthday parties and travel are all fraught. The consequences of one unsafe morsel could be unbearable–or not, as the one sure thing about allergies, you soon discover, is that they are unpredictable and not well understood. You know your child has to live in a world that is not risk-free; you know you all have to figure out how she can move safely through it without worrying too much, or asking too much of others. But how much is too much? When it’s your child, it can be awfully hard to settle that question, but you have to, and so you rebuild using new rules–always read labels; never assume; no epi-pen, no food.

Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone tells the story of a family whose experience is a limiting case for this kind of stress. One day, without warning (or maybe not), 16-year-old Miriam collapses and nearly dies, for no apparent reason. After a couple of weeks in the hospital, and many tests, the doctors conclude that it was probably (though not certainly) exercise-induced anaphylaxis–rare, inexplicable, and likely to reoccur, though how likely, or how soon, or with what severity, they really can’t say. “You do understand,” the doctor says to Miriam when she’s being discharged, “that because we don’t know what caused your anaphylaxis, we don’t know how you can avoid it.” bodies

The novel is narrated by Miriam’s father Adam, a stay-at-home dad and part-time academic. He is wry, sarcastic, irritable, self-aware, loving, and desperately trying to navigate the newly uncertain terrain of his life, especially his relationship with his daughter, with at least a little grace. His interior monologues brilliantly capture his struggle to keep his overwhelming fear for Miriam’s safety from becoming debilitating for either of them. “I don’t want the new normal,” he thinks when they first bring Miriam home and his wife Emma, herself a doctor, urges him to relax:

I want the old one back, or if I can’t have that I want Mim on the monitors for the rest of her life or at least the rest of mine and she is not going away in three years she can live here with us where I can listen to her breathing and she can attend one of the five excellent universities within an hour’s journey, to which I will happily drive her, outside whose lecture theatres I will happily wait.

“You need to practice letting go,” Adam’s father tells him; “this is understandable but it won’t help either of you in the long run.” Adam knows this perfectly well, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing to feel its truth and act on it; the novel is about Adam’s learning to let go, not of his fear for Miriam, but in spite of it.

Adam tries to help himself (unforgivably, he sometimes thinks) by focusing on those whose traumas dwarf theirs: other families in the ward whose children will not come home again no matter how careful their parents promise to be; families destroyed in Auschwitz or in Yugoslavia; children bullied to death or drowned or without Miriam’s access to life-saving treatments. A historian by training, he works on putting things in perspective. “This would have been normal,” he remarks to Emma; “Everyone would have been used to it. You know. Adverse outcomes in pædiatric medicine.” The euphemism does not do its job: “It means dead people,” Miriam (wonderfully smart, combative, and brave) ruthlessly explains to her little sister Rose. “All I mean,” Adam persists,

is that the way things are for us now is the normal one, globally and historically. It’s everyone else who’s anomalous. Everyone who doesn’t think it could happen to them.

Emma cannot understand why this comforts him at all, but it does, “a little.” Miriam’s near-death experience initially made him feel disconnected from everyone around him, because their surface normalcy seemed unable to accommodate the drastic collapse of his family’s normal life. The comforting realization, for him, is how shallow that surface layer is for everyone–that they all have in common the enormous, unbearable fragility of everything they take for granted, just as he took for granted that his daughters’ bodies worked, and would keep working, ceaselessly to keep them alive.

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What helps Adam most, though, is his work on a book about the restoration of Coventry Cathedral. The implicit parallels between its destruction and rebuilding and the destruction and reconstruction of Adam’s family are beautifully handled: the connections are never made explicit, never become heavy-handed, but simply grow in resonance as Moss interleaves Adam’s account of the work on the cathedral with his family story. By the end of The Tidal Zone I longed to see what Sir Basil Spence had built, encompassing both ruin and resurrection; the great tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland; and especially the windows of angels — “Leaping, leaning, jumping. Rising, writhing.” The new cathedral, Adam reflects, does not gloss over loss or pain, but that does not impede its message of hope:

It is not all right.

It is not all right, but there is beauty. We have ways of saying that it is not all right, that there is death and suffering and evil, and they are the same ways we have had for hundreds of years. Buildings. Glass. Weaving.

Words.

new-coventry-cathedralAgainst these rare soaring moments, and in contrast also to the tension and pathos of Adam’s anxiety for Miriam, Moss sets Adam’s wry commentary on being a stay-at-home dad and some terrific low-key satire of academic life. “Like all universities,” he says about the one where he teaches, “it is always building,” paving over the green spaces for car parks then digging up the car parks for new buildings so that “a swarm of angry drivers is permanently circling campus.” “I imagine there is some market research,” he goes on,

behind universities’ manifest view that what every bright eighteen-year-old craves is more overpriced coffee brought to them as they sit on more red leather sofas under more sepia images of Paris and New York. . . . You’d think that what The Youth of Today wants most of all is to recline in a soft red place and suck on the breasts of franchised multinational corporations, but only until you met the students. It is plain that the high-ups do not meet the students.

Add “posh places to use top-of-the-line exercise machines” to the list of what the “high-ups” assume The Youth of Today want and I think most North American academics would nod even more vigorously in rueful agreement. And we can all sympathize with Adam’s disappointment that the meeting for which he drags himself to campus does not, after all, serve coffee and biscuits. (Only meetings involving the “high-ups” get those, in my experience.)

ghost-wallI found The Tidal Zone gripping, moving, funny, and smart. It is written in a higher emotional register and with a faster pace than Moss’s Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, which I reviewed for Numero Cinq; these historical novels are also very smart but were almost too refined and cerebral for my taste. I’ve kept thinking about them since I wrote that review, though, which doesn’t always happen with books I review, and The Tidal Zone confirms Moss’s place on my list of writers whose new work I will always seek out (and in fact I’ll be reviewing her latest, Ghost Wall, for its fall release date, which is one reason I took The Tidal Zone off the shelf now). She has two earlier novels I haven’t read yet, and also a memoir; I look forward to reading them as well.