Cold Earth: A Novel

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Family Stories and Folktales: Sarah Moss’s Fiction Digs Deep

In an early scene from Sarah Moss’s newest novel, Ghost Wall, the teenage narrator notes one of many logical holes in her family’s unconventional vacation: “Within days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing.” Silvie and her parents have joined a university archaeology class to reenact Iron Age life in the Northumberland countryside, but even as they return to an earlier era, they’re making their own contemporary marks on the landscape. She rarely dares to point such details out, however, especially in the presence of her father, a bus driver who independently studies the pre-Roman history of Britain.

Of course, that description itself makes little sense; modern concepts of “Britain” and “Britishness” have little in common with their ancient counterparts, as the archaeology professor condescends to remind Silvie’s father during a discussion of Hadrian’s Wall. “Dad didn’t like this interpretation,” she observes. “He wanted his own ancestry, a claim on something, some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Silvie’s asides gently illustrate the impossibility of experiencing the Iron Age through present-day camping: she and her family continue to use toothbrushes and tampons; they wear uncomfortable tunics with no historical backing other than the assumption that Iron Age people must have been uncomfortable; they gather food in a landscape entirely different from that of the ancient Britons, with little of the knowledge they would have possessed. At one point, Silvie sullenly thinks that if they wanted to get truly technical, men like her father and the professor wouldn’t even have lived to their current ages.

Moss’s simultaneously taut and supple writing allows for many truths to coexist in the narrative. Silvie recognizes the absurdity of their undertaking, but also that there’s nothing absurd about wanting a closer connection to nature—she can grumble, but she’ll appreciate the glowing strawberries along the way. And her father’s instinct to select the elements of history that support his chosen narrative, although transparent and destructive in his case, hardly makes him unique. Humanity as a whole can’t resist telling stories in a sometimes futile, sometimes noble attempt to frame life, to somehow contain it.

Ghost Wall, published on Jan. 8 by FSG, is a tense, nimble novel. But given that it’s Moss’s seventh book, and only the first to be released by a major U.S. publisher (two of her earliest were released in lovely editions by Counterpoint Press), American readers could be forgiven for having overlooked this eloquent British writer. Her backlist includes five other novels—Cold Earth (2009), Night Waking (2011), Bodies of Light (2014), Signs for Lost Children (2015), and The Tidal Zone (2016)—as well as a memoir, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012), recounting her year teaching in Reykjavik.

For Adam, the narrator of The Tidal Zone, the story he tells himself is that his daughter will be all right. Miriam, age 16, collapses with no warning at school, and doctors can’t determine whether or not it will happen again. “It was important to tell people,” Adam reflects, part frantic, part despondent. “To let people know that this can happen: your child’s body can stop. Stop breathing, stop beating … I needed to tell people that the world was not as they believed it to be.” A stay-at-home father, Adam struggles to return to the cycles of everyday life now that he understands the certainty of those cycles to be illusion; as long as Miriam lives, they can never be sure that she’ll stay alive. Moss’s portrait of parenthood is equally tender and blunt, with Adam both cherishing and ruing the endless laundry, cooking, and pick-ups that define his life as a father.

Relationships between parents and children feature prominently in most of Moss’s work, and even the best of these relationships are never idealized. Night Waking is a particularly honest look at the contradictory emotions experienced by parents of young children, with Anna (another first-person narrator) attempting to raise two boys and reenergize her stalled career without any meaningful support from her husband. At one point she openly admits, “I don’t like motherhood and you don’t find that out until it’s too late. Love is not enough, when it comes to children. Bad luck.” Snippets of Moss’s memoir, Names for the Sea, although lacking this kind of pessimism, echo her characters’ struggles, like her offhand mention that she hasn’t visited Iceland’s National Gallery because she’s “vicariously traumatized by [her husband’s] account of trying to take the children there on a day when they didn’t like each other.” Parenthood means nothing is simple anymore—sleeping, preparing to leave the house, finding time to work. For every adorable interaction with your child, there’s an infuriating one.

We see the other side of this dynamic in Bodies of Light, her first foray into historical fiction (and, along with its sequel, Signs for Lost Children—her only novels in third person). Here we inhabit the perspective of a girl who knows that her mother has never enjoyed raising her. Growing up in 1860s Manchester, Ally fears her mother’s tight-lipped displeasure and fanatical austerity. Through some fate of personality, her sister, May (whose letters appear as historical artifacts in Night Waking), remains untouched by this same disapproval, even as Ally strives for the love and affirmation she’ll never be given. This is my favorite book from Moss; as insightful and funny as her contemporary work is, her Neo-Victorian novels showcase how feathery her authorial touch can be. Signs for Lost Children, the richest and most complex of her books, continues Ally’s story after she becomes one of Britain’s first female doctors, and offers one of the most generous passages I’ve ever read of a child reassessing a parent. When her friend, Annie, claims that “the politics of women’s pay” doesn’t absolve Ally’s mother of parental negligence, Ally mentally replies:
There is no separation between what Annie calls the politics of women’s pay and the formation of women’s minds. Mamma was trained to philanthropy, not to a professional life. Mamma was taught to set no price or value on her own time and effort, to understand her own labours merely as the justification of her existence … It is not as if Mamma had the choices, or indeed the Dutch rubber device, available to Ally. Mamma also is a creature of circumstance, of history and location, as are we all. Mamma works, Ally sees, because she does not believe that she deserves to live.
Signs for Lost Children is also a novel of separation, with Tom, Ally’s new husband, traveling for temporary engineering work in Japan. Their early longing for each other slowly transitions to remoteness, and Tom grapples with the foreigner’s paradox: feeling gauche and childlike in a new culture at the same time that he experiences a growing estrangement from his own. Clearly, Moss’s time in Iceland, and the probing, self-deprecating way she frames her own foreignness, filter into her fiction. The same can be said for her fascination with cultures of the north Atlantic. In addition to her Icelandic memoir, and her academic nonfiction on Arctic exploration, Night Waking, is set in the Hebrides, and her debut, Cold Earth, takes place on an archaeological dig in Greenland.

These isolated locations appear by turns peaceful and forbidding, both graced and haunted by their histories. This is never truer than in Cold Earth, where an international team assembles for a four-week dig and begins sensing strange forces around their campsite. Reports of an epidemic in the wider world leave them worried they’ll be stranded with winter approaching, making this the most suspenseful of Moss’s backlist. But it’s the musings on the uncertainties of archaeology that shine in this otherwise uneven novel. “Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue there’s less slippage reading words than land,” claims a lit student on the dig. “It does have a scientific grounding, you know,” counters another character. “There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”

History, legends, folktales, family stories—these slippery, inescapably human constructs form the spine of Moss’s work. Therein lies one of the brilliant aspects of her writing: she herself feels driven to create stories, to capture life in narratives, even as she deconstructs this same drive in her characters. Ghost Wall, in its artistry and timeliness, is the perfect place to start. Here’s hoping that its publication will bring more readers on this side of the pond to the rest of her cerebral, moving work.

Evolution of a Reader

I envy the way my oldest son reads, stretched out on the living room couch, all of a sudden this year taking up most of three cushions.  Watch his face: his lips move, his eyebrows raise and lower in drastic measures, he smiles, winces, gapes and falls still all in a mere breath.

He practices the cliché – he devours books.  But, even better, the books devour him.

I used to be the same way.  When I was about ten a pen pal came to visit from all the way across the country and I didn’t notice her for a few days after discovering a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins in her suitcase.

“Want to go swimming?” she would ask.  “Want to ride bikes?  Want to watch TV?”

No.  I was reading.  I was busy becoming an Austin.  There were four kids in that family and in my family there was only me, but for the duration of the book and all subsequent readings, I owned those brothers and sisters.  I had to make sure Vicki recovered from her fall off her bike, that Maggie didn’t get Suzie into too much trouble, that nobody froze during the ice storm.  A beloved pen pal paled in comparison.

That’s what reading used to feel like: changing into something better, or at least different, for a short time.  Becoming the characters.  Changing forever.  Emily of New Moon, Ramona Cleary, any of Lois Duncan’s savvy heroines, sad Davey from Tiger Eyes, clever kids from Paula Danziger – the list is long.  I wasn’t picky.

I’m not one of those creative types who has dark, damp memories of teenage loneliness and long-lasting existential horror, though I have tried at different times to cultivate that image.  I was pretty happy.  I had friends.  I had a horse, a job I loved, parents who were wise enough to let me go most of the time.  And I had books, though not quite in the same way I had them in my first decade.  Camus and Shakespeare often jostled elbows in my backpack, they also shared space with Christopher Pike and whoever it was wrote the Sweet Valley High series – educational reading.  I was a busy kid; I had only a few empty afternoons waiting like warm pools to slide into with a book.  I read between the cracks of my daily life and didn’t mind, didn’t notice.

College was where I discovered other people liked books, too.  I never got around to sniffing out the sororities, but within the first few weeks of my first semester I became an ardent member of the English Club.  People in the English Club read aloud by candlelight and sipped red wine and walked to town to hear Martin Espada and Kurt Vonnegut.  In that cramped, dusty office on the second floor of Bartlett Hall I was introduced to e.e.cummings (I know!  So late!), James Merrill and Philip Roth in the form of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Who proved to be useful during my sophomore year when I had time to kill while visiting my boyfriend in Atlanta.  Portnoy was a keen distraction from curious thoughts about the wineglasses I found on a high shelf in my boyfriend’s kitchen, suspicions about a certain girl he drove home from campus nearly every day, sinking alarm at his obvious comfort in her apartment when we went to visit.  Portnoy kept me oddly sane during a tumultuous three-week visit.  By the time I boarded a plane heading back to the frozen north, the book was a battered companion after having been read a few dozen times.  No human friend could have withstood my needy attentions like that.

Reading as self-defense – a technique I’ve used often.  Whenever I travel, I bring a familiar book to keep invasive home sickness at bay.  A death in the family?  I escape grieving guests to read upstairs in my bed.  Marital eruptions?  When the dust settles I can be found behind a book.  Better than drugs or alcohol for numbing the occasional pain of daily life.

But the way I read in college was different from the way I read as a child.  I read from afar.  I noticed technique, I could sift through the narrative and explain why a book worked.  I loved Roth, Garcia Marquez, Ford and O’Brien, but they were never able to maintain the spell that L’Engle could cast over the whole of me.  Not that L’Engle is a better writer.  But I was a different reader.

Graduate school was where I met writers and read their books and realized that real people wrote the books I loved.  Not that I thought books arrived from some celestial source, but I’d never had a conversation with a writer whose name appeared on a book jacket or two.  Before this, my wish to be a writer had shared characteristics with my wish to be a ballerina.  Never mind I hadn’t had a dance class since I was three.  But Francois Camoin, Abby Frucht, Victoria Redel – they had written books, and they were sitting across the lunch table from me.

Knowing the authors did nothing to decrease the distance I felt from the books I held in my hands.  Instead, as I learned better how to decipher the coded technique in any text, that highway between me and the book grew longer.  As I became a better writer, I became a more distant reader.

When my first child was born I prepared by reading Carol Shields’ Unless.  Other expectant moms read thick how-to manuals.  I dove headfirst into a story about a mother who acutely misses her daughter, about a daughter who confronts a harshness that alters the way she enters the world.  I credit the book for getting me through 24 hours of hard labor.  Not towards the end when there were so many people with me.  But in the beginning of birth pains, at home while my husband snored in the other room, I escaped the so-far minimal disruption by kneeling on the floor and hovering over the book, rocking my body back and forth.  Pain in my belly, pain in the book.

Babies arrive and yes, you might spend a bizarre amount of time watching them sleep, but you also might get a tiny bit bored and long for something normal to do.  Like finish one of your favorite books.  With my second baby I read Paula Fox’s first memoir, Borrowed Finery, and with my third – well, don’t tell him, but I can’t remember.  There were two other children who still needed my reassurance and advice, and brains can be foggy after giving birth.  I know I read something, though.  Perhaps it was self-defense again; perhaps I look to books to protect me from life’s ultimate highs and lows; maybe I am addicted to the parallel highs and lows books have to offer.  I see the world through book-colored glasses.

Now I am a professional reader.  Reviewing books is one of several profit-driven jobs I do in between the tasks related to the care of three little boys and a house and a husband and a plethora of chickens.  And reviewing has perhaps changed the way I read more than any other life shift.  I read faster.  I could, if I weren’t so inconveniently honest, write a comprehensive and accurate review of most of the (bad) books after only 20 pages.  But I keep going.  I read with an ear open to possible quotes, I look for mistakes, patterns of textual mayhem, suggestions on how to improve the next book.  Some days, reading all these bad books is enough to make me turn to television.

But there are good things about bad books.  I read over my own fiction with an ear bent precisely toward what can go wrong.  I read like a reader instead of a writer.

When I find myself audience to a good review book the sensation is akin to that felt while watching my middle boy learn to ride his bike.  With fewer moments of sheer fear.  I slow down, I bite my tongue to keep from cheering out loud, and I type very, very fast after I put the book down.  I swoon over these books – The Dark Side of Love, Last Night in Montreal, The Cold Earth.  And sometimes, even when the youngest son shrieks for cookies and the oldest laments the lack of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom and the middle child begs loudly for a new bike, I don’t quite hear them.  I have been devoured.

Am I a happier reader now than I was when I was eight?  Is today’s generation happier than our cavemen ancestors?  Evolution both solves problems and creates new ones; as plenty of recent books explain: happiness is relative.  I still love to read.  Reading might be sweeter now that I fall in love with fewer books.  And sometimes knowing why I love a certain book is a sweetness in itself.

On my way to bed these days I pass my oldest boy still awake, eyes roaming the page in ever-widening sweeps.  He’s tired.  “But I can’t stop reading,” he whispers.

I know the feeling.

[Image credit: Aurore D]

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