Review: Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss

Imagine you are part of a group of archaeologists sent on assignment to a remote area of Greenland.  As you’re leaving home, a virus spreads, sparking fears of a pandemic.  Your group is isolated and safe, but will your friends and loved ones be OK?

That is the premise behind Cold Earth, Sarah Moss’ debut novel.  The archaeologists are a diverse group:  two American (Ruth, Jim), two English (Nina, Ben), one Scottish (Catriona), and their leader Yianni, originally from Greece.   Only Yianni and Nina knew each other before the dig.  Each member brings unique history and neuroses.  Ruth comes across as haughty and vain, but this masks deeper emotional scars.  Nina is plagued by nightmares, visions of what may have happened to the original settlers.  And she claims someone is lurking outside her tent in the middle of the night.  Others find the dig site disturbed overnight, and some see mysterious lights and shadows.  It’s all rather creepy.

For a while, group members maintain email contact with family, and keep up with the news via a single laptop and satellite internet connection.  But suddenly, their communication is cut off.  Is it an everyday flaky technology problem, sabotage by their mysterious visitor, or evidence of the pandemic’s global impact?   Their feelings of isolation fuel fears that they will be unable to return home.

The story of Cold Earth is told via letters written by each group member as they face the possibility of their own mortality.  It’s a clever technique, with each character’s point of view revealing minor details that build suspense while also providing “aha” moments.  There were a few small flaws in this novel, where Moss could have done more to dispel my inner cynic, but for the most part I found this book difficult to put down.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 4

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2 thoughts on “Review: Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss

  1. I’m reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow right now, which has a bit of Greenland in it, and now I’m curious to read more!

    However, I don’t usually enjoy epistolary novels that much, so I think I’ll keep looking.

    • Eva, when I think of epistolary novels, I think of books like 84, Charing Cross Road or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Cold Earth isn’t like those. The chapter/letters read more like a narrative from one character’s perspective. In the first chapter it takes a long time to even figure out the narrator is writing a letter (I think there’s some phrase like, “when you read this ..” that tipped me off). There’s no date or salutation at the beginning of each chapter, and it’s often unclear to whom they are writing. I’d hate for you to shy away from this just based on format, so I thought I’d clear up that aspect.

      Smilla is interesting, isn’t it? I liked that book …

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