Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

Published in 2010, by Orion

I love a good horror story – I love that creepy dread-inducing feeling, that idea that something is not quite right. Ghosts are fascinating because there is a whole other story going on away from their haunting of a person or place – why are they haunting it, what happened, is it malignant or just wanting help, how much can it intrude into the present? So I picked up Dark Matter because it looked like a fun scary read, and a nice change from my usual young adult and kids fare.
Jack is in his late twenties – poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. He is offered the chance to be a wireless operator on an Arctic expedition with four others, and leaves a London threatened by war to spend a year at a base in Gruhuken, in remote Norway. At first he is delighted to be useful, away from his stuffy, dead-end life in London, but as, one by one, his companions are all forced to leave, Jack begins to doubt his commitment to staying. Living in permanent polar night, he lives in fear of the sea freezing over, making return and escape impossible. And something is watching him, in the snow – something that oozes malignance. Imagination or reality? Is Jack really alone?
The setting of this book, Gruhuken, is stunning in its untouched isolation, its harshness, its complete submission to the natural world. Paver describes it with astute observation. Her prose is not showy or of astounding beauty – but the world she’s describing is beautiful enough on its own. The darkness, the rare moments of light, the fog, the dark water, the ice caps – they all come alive in Paver’s prose and you can feel Jack’s wonder as he witnesses what it is like to step into this world.
Dark Matter is told in diary entries, something I’m not usually a fan of. It works well here, but it could have been told in normal first person present or past to the same effect. I guess what the diary entries do is emphasise the elements of time and isolation. When you are alone and waiting for someone or something, time can have a good old play around with your mind. And as Jack is alone and his story quite a personal one, the diary-style captures well what he is going through.
I wouldn’t say this story is particularly scary, either psychologically or physically. But I had a great time reading it. For what it is, it works. It does perfectly the is there/isn’t there mood and the feel of being stuck, alone, in this hostile white wilderness and wondering whether you are going to last. I love a good faithful-dog sub-plot, and the one with Isaak added a much-needed emotional grounding. It provided warmth, and at least one other character whose survival we invested in (because obviously, as its Jack’s diary, we know he’s going to last at least through to the end). I also found the rituals that occupied Jack’s day quite fascinating, the every little thing he needed to do to retain normality and ensure that he beat the cold and the environment. It feels real.
Dark Matter won’t have you trembling under your covers. But it is a well told story, with just enough uh-oh moments to keep you turning the pages to the end.

"Moving closer to the edge, I peered down. The water was glassy green, extraordinarily clear. I experienced the feeling I sometimes get when I'm on a bridge or a railway platform. Rationally, you know that you've no intention of stepping off ... but you're aware that you could, and that the only thing stopping you is your will."

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