Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

Dark Matter (n): Matter inferred to exist from it's gravitational effects on visible matter.

It is 1937 and in a foggy London four gentlemen of science await a fifth, the potential wireless operator for an expedition to Gruhuken in the Arctic to study High Arctic biology and conduct a meteorological survey. The fifth member of the group is Jack Miller, a clerk who had to abandon his dreams of a scientific career to care for his mother after his fathers illness and death.

'Dark Matter' is comprised of Jack's diary entries primarily written during his time in the Arctic. However, at the beginning of the book is a letter from a medical Doctor in 1947 seeking more information from a member of the Arctic team regarding Jack for a monograph on  'abnormal fears' and 'phobic disorders'. The reader is therefore placed on notice that the contents of the journal may not be reliable and of the need to assess how far Jack can be trusted to tell us the 'truth' of his experiences in the Arctic.

Jack is 28, lonely, poor and has a chip on his shoulder about his life circumstances and the wealth of his expedition companions. He has no friends and has been alone for 7 years since the death of his mother. Judgmental and resentful of his companion's opportunities due to their wealth Jack isn't a very likable character. Jack wants to change his life and views the Arctic and the expedition as a way to do this:

'I think that's what the Arctic means to me. I think that up here, I'll be able to "breathe with both lungs", as Mr Eriksson says: to see clearly for the first time in years. Right through to the heart of things'

Like the obscuring London fog at the beginning off the book, Jack is unable to view his circumstances and history clearly and without emotion. He hates 'all this raking up the past' and hopes that the expedition to Gruhuken will be a new start.

Unfortunately, of the original team of five, only three make it to Gruhuken - Jack, Algie and Gus.

What follows is a quiet winding of tension as both Algie and Gus have to leave Grunuken and Jack remains to carry out the meteorological objectives of the survey. But as endless day turns into endless night, Jack and the reader enter a world where science and reality hold no sway:

There's no dawn and no dusk. Time has no meaning. We've left the real world, and entered a land of dreams'

What actually happens to Jack, what he sees, hears and feels are the 'Dark Matter' of the title. Jack doesn't like the past 'poking through' but this is exactly what seems to be happening to him. The past influences Jack in how he lived in London and the past influences his behaviour in the Arctic winter. The scientific mind is pitted against our most primitive fears:

'Fear of the dark. Until I came here, I thought that was for children; that you grew out of it. But it never really goes away. It's always there underneath. The oldest fear of all.'

As the polar night engulfs Gruhuken in darkness and the point of no return approaches, what exactly is Jack experiencing?

Gruhuken and the Arctic are physically present in this book in their own right. What lingers in the mind are Pavers' descriptions of the expedition surroundings, the first sight of which is like 'a blow to Jack's heart'. The noises of the ice talking to itself, the pistol shot as part of a glacier breaks off and sinks into the sea and behind it all, the stillness

'Immense. Overwhelming. I realised that this place is and always will be No-man's-land.'

This is no high octane action adventure, more of a slow burn as tension and doubt are layered on top of each other. Paver's tightly controlled narrative and character development meant that I never lost belief in Jack's character, there are no slips or jarring notes to bring the reader back to their own reality. Jack's character begins to change as his story unfolds, thawing and relaxing, due to his friendship with Gus and his love for one of the team of huskies. Paver is equally convincing in the portrayal of the unraveling of Jack's view of reality. As we are left to try to sort out what actually happened to him in Gruhuken we are given a glimpse into Jack's future - a view which I found as unsettling as the events in Gruhuken itself.

Definitely a book to read in large bites (if not in one mouthful) if you are a lover of the strange and chilling.

This is Michelle Pavers' first ghost story for adults, her style is simple and direct and as such the book would be accessible for older teens.

My thanks to Orion for providing me with an advance copy for review. Because my copy is an advance some of the quotes above may differ slightly in the final version of the book.

'Dark Matter' will be published on the 21st October


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