Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely, and desperate to change his life, so when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, but the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice: stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return–when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…

Thoughts in 2019:  As I mentioned in my recent review of Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, I still vividly remember how I felt when I read Dark Matter. My slightly tired looking paperback copy has survived many culls because I can’t face getting rid of it and I just want to know that I still own a copy. I read a lot of historical fiction and even more ghost stories and this remains one of my absolute favourites. It isn’t only the sense of the unknown and the creeping unease, it’s the staggering level of detail about the otherworldly environment of the Arctic. I still can’t recommend this book highly enough!

Thoughts in 2012:  Earlier in the year, when my village in Yorkshire was being snowed upon, I had a sudden craving for curling up next to my fire and devouring a book.  I didn’t want to just read, I wanted to be completely immersed in a story and only come up for air when absolutely necessary.  Dark Matter was without a doubt the perfect choice and I read it in a single snowy day.

The story opens with a group of intrepid explorers setting out for the Arctic, jauntily taking photographs of themselves in their special clothing and engaging in the kind o f British public school banter that I have fortunately not had much direct experience of.  As with so many great ghost stories, there’s a pervasive sense of hope and excitement that you know is being crafted so that the ultimate descent into horror is more shocking.  The setting is fantastically mysterious.  I’ve always wanted to visit somewhere like Norway, see the Northern Lights and experience that other-worldliness that this book excels at describing.  So too, do our merry band of scientists.

Of course, where would we be without a few wisened old characters along the way warning of the great dangers lying ahead?  Dark Matter has an ageing sailor tasked with taking Jack and his group to Gruhuken, grimly warning off the dangers hiding in the perpetual night.  From that moment on, the story takes a turn for the creepier and I was hooked.  Honestly, I only stopped reading to make dinner and eat it.  I was fascinated by the setting but most of all I was captivated by the occasional glimpses at the mysteries of Gruhuken.  Snippets of its history and hints at its secret were doled out sparingly but often enough that it feels as though the story is never going to let you go.  When I was finally “in the know”, everything fit together and I was left staring at the pages in shock, with a faint look of disgust no doubt on my face.

Paver has spent a lot of time travelling in the Arctic and it shows.  The environment and the atmosphere are so detailed and breath-taking that you feel as though you can hear the ice creaking around you and feel the crisp, frozen air swirling.  There’s a fantastic article on the author’s website here that describes how much she put into making this book as perfect as it is:

“I went in summer, at the time of the midnight sun, and Jack’s experiences on first seeing Spitsbergen are mine: the sinister, black-faced polar bear who’d been eating the walrus from the inside; the abandoned guillemot chick; Jack’s solo walk to the small, cold lake; and those brief but desperate moments when he thinks he’s lost… All this is what I’ve seen and experienced myself”

The unravelling of Jack’s hopes, dreams and sanity in the icy wilderness is utterly heart-breaking. I desperately wanted him to give up, take his way out and leave the shadows alone and, even with everything else that was brilliant about this book, it was that that kept me reading.  Jack is such a wonderful narrator and his vulnerability is disarmingly charming right from the opening chapters.  As the story is largely told through Jack’s diary entries, there is plenty of time to get to know him.  He is a complex character who is so darn real that it’s impossible not to be sucked in. His naivety and desperation to fit in with his fellow explorers at the outset is tinged with a bitterness that he has to try so hard and his later decisions are constantly coloured by his life experiences.  Nothing he did seemed out of kilter with the character I felt I’d come to know and I wish that more authors knew their characters well enough to make that work.

My only complaint about this book is that it made me agree with the Daily Mail.  No good can come from agreeing with the Daily Mail BUT their reviewer was right, Dark Matter is “a blood-curdling ghost story, evocative not just of icy northern wastes but of a mind turning in on itself”. Read it.

Overall: As a ghost story, Dark Matter is exceptional.  As a description of the dangerous beauty of the Arctic, Dark Matter is also exceptional.  In the end though, the beauty of the novel lies in that age-old haunting question: “What’s waiting for you, just beyond the edge of the light?”

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