When six archeologists from the United States, England and Scotland arrive in Greenland’s Arctic summer to record lost Viking settlements, each has a reason for joining the expedition, but none is prepared for the test that awaits. While Internet communication is infrequent and carefully rationed, news reports suggest a spreading epidemic that threatens families at home - even the ability of the team to return when their task is finished.
Yanni, leader of the expedition, helps Nina, Ruth, Catriona, Jim and Ben stay focused on the work at hand, reminding them that there is nothing they can do but concentrate on daily obligations and keep checking for news from home. Of course, resources are limited to the specific needs of arrival and departure, the need for more supplies never anticipated. As it dawns on them that they might have to endure a harsh Greenland winter, the group reflects upon how frequently they have wasted precious food in small indulgences after a hard day’s work.
Written in narrative form by the most vital characters, the story is dominated by Nina, who is not an archeologist and has left her lover in England to accompany her friend Yanni on this adventure. Solicitous, Yanni never ceases to worry over Nina’s comfort. They have barely arrived when Nina verbalizes her regret at leaving David behind. She begins having crushing nightmares: raids on Viking villages, families slaughtered in the snow, swords slashing and the deadly silence of bodies strewn across a bloody landscape.
The pragmatic Ruth, a recent widow, has no patience with Nina’s perceived hysterics, applying her energies diligently to the work at hand, preferring to suffer her grief privately. But Catriona, a Scottish artist who yearns to capture the beauty of the ice in her paintings, enters into a folie a deux with Nina, feeding on Nina’s terror and certainty, the danger to the expedition painfully clear. Whether Nina’s belief that “others” are watching proves valid or not, all are undermined by sleepless nights enduring Nina’s screams and the strain of a growing enmity between Ruth and Nina.
Ultimately, the expedition decides to write letters home in case they are not rescued, English Ben and the very American Jim, who finds comfort in his faith and aggravates Ruth with promises of salvation. The emotional tenor of the enterprise shifts from curiosity and the anticipation of discovery to ragged atonal dissonance laced with fear for Nina’s fragile mental state and their own endurance in a hostile environment.
The pleasure of cataloging the secrets of an ancient civilization becomes instead a pitched battle in an uninhabitable place which even the Vikings left for a more sustainable terrain during the winter. Fear their greatest enemy, civility breaks down day by day until the pristine site is littered with the detritus of peat fires and the mounting disagreements of a group struggling to survive their darkest hour: “Death doesn’t get better. Maybe life does.” Like Nina’s fevered dreams, the unknown infects the archeologists with the most primitive of reactions.