Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
|Dark Matter by Michelle Paver|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Chilling ghost story set in the stark, desolate environment of the Arctic. Subtle and evocative, it's an absorbing and intelligent read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: October 2010|
|External links: Author's website|
It's January 1937 and dark clouds of impending war are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is in London, working as a clerk and living in one lonely room. He should probably think himself lucky because many people have neither job nor home in this Great Depression, but he doesn't. He feels lonely and isolated and angry that a career in research physics was snatched away from him by economic circumstance. So when the chance of becoming the wireless operator for an Arctic expedition comes along, he jumps at it - even though the team comprises of the exact privileged young men he most resents.
They plan to overwinter in Gruhuken, an isolated bay. Four men, eight huskies, and a season of neverending night. But then illness means four becomes three. And then an accident means three becomes one. And Jack is all alone, with only the dogs and his terrifying visions for company...
To my mind, in The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver gave us some of the best children's fiction in recent times. My favourite book in that series was the one set in the Arctic, showing as it did the author's clear love affair with that stark but beautiful environment. Now, Paver's turning her hand to a ghost story for adults, set in the same surroundings. I was fascinated. Would the same love and beauty shine through? Or would menace be the trope du jour?
Well, of course, menace there is aplenty. But the beauty is there too, and becoming all the more precious seen through Jack's eyes as he escapes the dull monotony of clerking his way through the Great Depression. The spectacular scenery and the isolation seem to smooth away the chips on his shoulder, his resentments, and his jealousy of his wealthy companions. The expedition is a chance for Jack to escape the pettiness of genteel poverty and to get back into a life bathed in science. Even better, he can feel a real friendship with Gus beginning to develop. So he won't listen to the warnings of the Norwegian captain. He discounts the things he sees and the forebodings he feels. And when the chance comes to prove himself to Gus, he takes it, despite all these things.
I loved this story. Paver has kept the tight, focussed writing she used in her writing for children. I think this is a good thing generally, but it's even more important in a ghost story, where tension is vital. And Dark Matter is tense. I couldn't put it down. But it's also evocative and sensuous, and not only in its depiction of beauty and cruelty as the two faces of nature. There's also the duality of Jack's loneliness - the initial alienation and class conflict is laid side-by-side with his eventual physical aloneness, out on the ice with nothing but a ghost for company.
It's as creepy as an M R James ghost story and yet, even though it's set in the 1930s, it doesn't feel self-consciously dated as many neo-Gothic stories do. It feels absolutely relevant. Not many people can write historical fiction without anachronism but with a contemporary feel and Michelle Paver is one of them. Dark Matter comes highly recommended by Bookbag.
My thanks to the good people at Orion for sending the book.
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