Review: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

dark-matter-coverMy Rating: 5 stars

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, not to be confused with the recent novel by Blake Crouch, is set largely in the remote Norwegian wilderness of 1937 with the second world war looming. After reading it (on suitably gloomy, late November days) I will definitely NOT be setting off there, especially over the winter!

I always enjoy a good ghost story – Dark Matter is described as an adult ghost story – and this book certainly made me shiver. Not only because of its brilliantly described Arctic setting – Paver also takes us on a journey to the deepest, least-evolved regions of the brain where we are prepared to believe that the dark is not just the dark, and all our scientific advances and perceived progress count for nothing.

Jack, a somewhat embittered, poverty-struck, down-on-his-luck, stuck-in-rut young Englishman and a loner who hankers after a career in physics, seizes his chance to set off on a scientific expedition to the Arctic. (The splendidly horrible-sounding Gruhaken, a remote uninhabited bay in Norway.) The story is told as entries in Jack’s journal.

From a hopeful start in a wild, wondrous landscape full of possibility, things quickly deteriorate. The captain of the ship delivering the three men to their camp is clearly afraid of something nasty where they are headed. One of Jack’s two fellow expedition members seems to be a fledgling sociopath. Then Gus, the expedition leader, a dashing, handsome chap who Jack greatly admires, falls sick and Jack is left on his own to operate the wireless and keep the camp going – hopefully temporarily until the other two return, but this depends on whether or the sea ices over…

Faced with the threat of being stranded for months alone in a hostile, increasingly dark and icy wilderness, Jack, a rational man, is forced to confront himself and his fear of what may or may not be out there with him. For something seems to be haunting the camp, something he cannot explain, possibly connected to the ruins of a previous camp… Is he really alone? The evidence seems to point to there being an actual ‘thing’ present. Then again, can we trust that Jack is telling us the whole story? He becomes increasingly obsessive and superstitious, turning to alcohol as his fear and sense of aloneness increase.

This is a bleak novel at its heart. It’s also a compelling read. The mounting terror that Jack experiences gave me the willies and made me utterly glad that I live a long way from anywhere with total darkness. For in this inhospitable place in the encroaching darkness of the Arctic winter, with the sun only a glimmer below the horizon, the mind loses its rational veneer.

The battle between the rational and ‘irrational’ self is a central aspect of the book. We see Jack’s internal struggles to cope with what he learns and the situation he faces. ‘Dark matter’ by the way, for people not into cosmology is the term that describes the stuff in the universe that we can’t easily detect but must infer from observation. It’s also a sort of metaphor for the unknown stuff out there in the wild, and inside us. The landscape plays a big part in the book too – the natural world and living conditions are vividly evoked. Also there’s the wider idea of haunting, of the past continuing to affect the present, especially when it’s unwanted or contains horrible things. The first world war haunts the world of 1937, and there are things in his own history that Jack doesn’t want to face. In this isolated region of northern Norway worrying folk tales abound and past actions reverberate across time.

To be critical, which is difficult as this is so beautifully written, some of Jack’s decisions might seem unlikely to some, if not plain daft. But Jack is a flawed character, necessarily so, and I could go along with them – though I did yell at him in several places towards the end, ‘Don’t be so ****ing stupid!!’

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of historical or psychological fiction, and everyone who enjoys being seriously spooked.

My debut novel Blind Side (23 July 2016, Unbound) is available from:

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