Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Firstly, I must apologise for my unannounced hiatus from book blogging in recent weeks: I’ve been extremely busy with some major projects for my work and I’ve also been away staying my with in-laws (who live in a rather wonderful, grade 2 listed ex-schoolhouse with a tin roof that seemed to block out all connections on my mobile phone!) But now I’m back, with a backlog of recent reads to share with you. And, although I’ll happily tackle icy reads all year long, we’re coming into the best seasons to curl up with a book set in cold climes. So stay tuned for a fair few polar picks, as well as some other reviews….

First up is this:

Darm matter

Published: 2010 by Orion
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Hugo says this is probably how the Catholics imagine purgatory, and maybe he’s right. There’s no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We’ve left the real world, and entered a land of dreams.”

Ghost stories are for life, not just for Halloween, but I do like to ensure that I have something a little bit eerie on the go around the end of October, so this was my choice for 2013. An obvious choice, perhaps: the haunted happenings of Dark Matter take place during a fictional 1930s British expedition to the far reaches of the Svalbard archipelago. The Arctic environs of Spitsbergen are a location with which I have become increasingly fascinated since watching/hearing The Ghost of Piramida and I loved the idea of this remote and forbidding location playing host to the sort of old fashioned Jamesian ghost story that this short novel is often touted to be. Unfortunately, such promise wasn’t quite realised: for me at least, the more supernatural aspects of the narrative never quite hit the right tone to deliver the delicious chill I’d been anticipating. But there are plenty of chills of a more descriptive nature to be enjoyed here. Paver has travelled in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, as well as experiencing the seasons of both enduring daylight and darkness on Spitsbergen, and her first-hand experience and passion for the Arctic landscape illuminates even the most clipped of her frequently economical sentences. Although most of the action takes place in and around a fictitious location, Gruhuken, Paver succeeds in bringing the Arctic landscape and its conflicted history vividly to life.

Much of the story is conveyed – in that tried and trusted polar tradition – through journal extracts. Our diarist is Jack Miller, a character immediately set apart from his adventuring colleagues by his class. While the prodigious expense of mounting a private expedition ensured that most participants were privileged gentlemen, Jack hails from the lower middle classes. With an undergraduate career behind him that he could not afford to pursue to postgraduate level, Jack is educated enough to expect more from his life, and to resent not having achieved this. He joins the expedition feeling like an outsider because of his class, and harbouring a potentially explosive mix of gratitude and resentment. Jack’s increasing physical isolation, as the expedition team decrease in size and journey further into the icy wilderness, is mirrored in interesting ways by his self-perception as a social outcast. I sympathised with Jack, but – just as the icy landscape refracts light, creating illusions and mirages – also found myself questioning the limits of his perceptions and credibility as a narrator.

All the classic ghost story ingredients are present here, from an unreliable narrator, to cryptic warnings from reticent locals and of course – those canine barometers of haunted happenings – inexplicably unsettled dogs. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is Paver’s playful depiction of the huskies who emerge as individual and memorable characters just as they do in accounts of many real polar expeditions. I fully expected the scares here to be more psychological than gruesome. Indeed, Paver’s work often put me in mind of Admiral Byrd’s  Alone, a classic account of polar solitude that is haunted by a number of social and psychological demons. Although Byrd’s self-inflicted ordeal took place at the opposite pole it is perhaps telling that his real-life experiences would have been roughly contemporary with Jack’s. Yet despite the adept build up of suspense, when they finally emerge, the supernatural aspects of Dark Matter seem to swerve between feeling underplayed or over-signposted. Although this is undoubtedly a book for adults, at times I was reminded of the fact that Paver has written most extensively for children. The horror of Gruhuken is either glimpsed and discounted so quickly that its menace is not sufficiently developed, or else its potential causes and history are outlined in a rigorous, almost academic way that dispels much of the sense of sinister wonder that comprises the dark heart of the very best ghost stories.

Dark Matter isn’t then, among the very best of ghost stories – in my personal spooky canon, at least. But it is still an evocative page turner of icy survival that does a good job of rendering the most elusive elements of  Arctic experience:

And why do I even try to describe the colours? Is it the human compulsion to name things, to assert control? Perhaps the same compulsion drives our meteorology: all that observing, measuring, recording. Trying to render bearable this vast, silent land.

And although the supernatural elements of the book may not fully succeed, as an exploration of isolation and simmering 1930s class tensions Dark Matter has much to offer. If never sensational, this is certainly an enjoyably solid choice for a quick read on a late autumn or winter’s evening.

This entry was posted in Book reviews, historical fiction, Polar Ponderings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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