Sunday, 9 January 2011
The Sunday Read: Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
Every so often, you find yourself picking up a book and wanting to read it not because you've heard the title before, not because you're drawn to the setting or the location, the genre or the style of writing, but just because the concept is so intriguing that you feel you just have to know more.
Cold Earth is one such book; a book that promises to be an apocalyptic tale about a virus sweeping over the earth while a team of people in a remote location cope with isolation and survival in the face of it all. I couldn't wait to start it.
A group of six archaeologists all assemble in the West Coast of Greenland to research lost Viking settlements; their team is led by Yianni, a professional archaeologist, who receives a large amount of funding for a dig to find out how medieval settlers, once present on Greenland, may have disappeared. He brings with him four archaeologists - two men and two women - and a further woman, Nina, his unrequited love interest.
And it is Nina who begins the narrative. A petulant and immature character whose only interest is Victorian literature (and certainly not the dig), Nina epitomises high-maintanence, and her introspective self-absorbed whines really do get rather old rather quickly. Of course, it doesn't help that she is the sole character to narrate the story until about a third of the way into the book; and by this point, with little to no mention of the deadly virus which one is assured is the focus of this 'apocalyptic' book, it's easy to begin to wonder whether it's worth the read after all; whether there's somehow been some awful mix-up between the published blurb and the actual content.
But then at last, in a break from focussing on Nina's increasing insanity and hallucinations as she struggles to cope with Greenland, Ruth takes over, and things improve for the next third of the novel - well, at least somewhat. An upbeat American, Ruth is much more likeable as a character; but, unfortunately, her 100-page narrative is primarily used by Moss to describe Nina's hallucinations from the view of another character - hallucinations which are neither fully addressed nor explained in the remaining third of the book. Indeed, devoting more than half of the narrative to Nina's troubles just seems a little pointless; set the scene before introducing the idea of the virus and of isolation, yes, but is there really a need to spend two-thirds of the book scene-setting and dwelling on Nina's growing insanity, leaving just under 100 pages for the remaining four characters to rather suddenly describe the effects of the virus?
It has to be said, though, that when the virus storyline really kicks in, it's rather good; and, if you can resist the urge fifty pages before the end to skip to the last paragraph, you ought to be commended on your strength of character. Their internet connection breaks down, they hear of the virus, food runs low, and then the team are left, it seems, to die - and thus emerges an interesting few pages which say a lot about survival, about characters, and, if you're prepared to look deep enough, about something much deeper. It is, of course, spoiled slightly by the fact that Nina is back to narrate the final chapter, and I'm afraid that not even an intriguing twist could save me from the deep frustration that she should be left to finish the book, as she began it, when one of the other more interesting characters could, I'm sure, have offered more worthwhile insights.
I wanted to like this book. I really did, and perhaps if my only qualm had been the construction and preoccupation with Nina's character, I may have been able to conclude that the book was a very worthwhile read nonetheless. But Nina's character wasn't my only issue. The language was, perhaps purposely so, sparse, emotionless and hollow in places; some characters were overdeveloped while more interesting characters were hardly explored at all; the twist at the end really made little sense and was just a further source of frustration; and, for a novel which takes two-thirds of the narrative to set the scene, the location of Greenland and the details of the camp, surroundings and even the dig remained surprisingly unexplored.
It has to be said, Cold Earth was excellent in places - but I'm beginning to think my expectations were too high. It was billed as an apocalyptic, gripping novel which offers some real food for thought on issues of survival and the traces we leave behind, and I think I was hoping for a 28 Days Later-come-Lord of the Flies affair. Silly me, perhaps; it is most certainly not that. What it is, however, is an interesting piece of work which is perhaps purposely slow and frustrating up until the final fifty tense pages, which really do have something quite profound to say about themes of survival, love - and, in a deeper sense - society, and the nature of humanity beyond that.
And it is an incredibly short novel, Cold Earth - at a little under 300 pages, you can't help but think that if Moss had taken the time to extend the novel; to make the dull scene-setting with the rather dull case study of Nina's insanity a half or a third of the book rather than two-thirds, it may have made the novel into the gripping apocalyptic narrative it is billed to be.
A unique and interesting read, so much so that it's almost worth persevering through the first 200 pages for the intrigue of the final 100; almost, I'm afraid, but not quite.