Sunday, 10 May 2009

Cold Earth - Sarah Moss

A team of archaeologists gather on a site in Greenland to dig a ‘lost’ Viking settlement. During the course of their work they are plagued by an uneasy feeling of being ‘haunted’ by the events that led to the site’s original destruction. At the same time, their communication with the outside world is interrupted with talk of an epidemic sweeping the world.

I tried to like this book. I wanted to like this book. I have a passing acquaintance with archaeology, having worked in museums; and I have always thought a dig is a good setting for a novel. Very few that I have read in the past have captured the spirit, so I was hoping this book would succeed. I am also very fond of novels that explore social breakdown and how communities cope as society collapses around them. I thought this would be the ideal book for me. The epidemic angle makes it topical.

The trouble is, this book is bad on so many levels. To begin with it handles its setting badly. The archaeological side of it could have done with the author watching a few episodes of The Time Team. If the author did much research they have signally failed to transfer it convincingly to the story. Furthermore, it could, for all we get from the book, have been set anywhere. Greenland has a distinctive environment and culture, yet none of that came through to me in the story. Indeed, I was left with the impression that this was just a translocated isolated house story – a staple of pulp horror and detective stories since, well, since Beowulf.

The characters are stilted (as is their dialogue), reading like something from a faux Austen novel written by somebody who has only ever seen Austen on the television. They talk like they are reading a script for the first time with no prior knowledge of story, place, or even their own character. The switching of viewpoints was not well handled and is a dull way to tell a story. Had it simply been presented as the journals of a group of people who didn’t survive from which we piece together their last days it would have been infinitely more interesting. Instead, it all peters out as if the author was not able to keep all the plates spinning. At no point was I able to develop any empathy for any of them or, indeed, find any sympathy for their plight. They were so awfully middle class and wrapped up with their own tiny concerns, I found myself wishing for some mad Viking ghost to rampage through the camp with a bloody axe leaving an evil pathogen in his wake to pick off the survivors.

Cold Earth is touted by the publisher as a ‘highly sophisticated novel of ideas’. Too many ideas. None of them sophisticated (unless middle class academic preoccupations count as sophisticated). Either theme (isolated group or pandemic) would have been sufficient for a novel of ideas. Even together in the hands of a skilled writer it could have worked. Instead it fails. And because the bar for this kind of story has already been set so high (Ballard and Camus are two names that spring to mind without much effort) it is unwise to attempt such an approach unless you have the skills to match that. Moss may be a great academic; she is not a good fiction writer.

In the end, what we have is an amateurish piece of writing that has an over abundance of false sentimentality and no real core of emotion. There is no feeling of urgency and for me, nothing to make me read to the end other than the fact I had agreed to review the book. It doesn’t work as an intellectual exercise (there are no startling insights into the human condition), it doesn’t work as a thriller (despite the potential), and it doesn’t work as speculative fiction (indeed, the only speculation I made was how the book made it to publication although given the information in the Acknowledgements, it is possible to guess). It is not out and out dire, but it is not a book I could honestly recommend to anyone.