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?”

Book Chat: ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver

I first read one of Michelle Paver’s novels seven years ago. I can’t remember how I came across Dark Matter but I could still describe the plot to you and I still vividly remember how it made me feel. I read it in a single sitting on a gloomy weekend day and it remains one of my absolute favourite ghost stories. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the release of Paver’s novels and although none have quite lived up to that first experience, I’ve enjoyed every one of her ghostly offerings.

It will come as a surprise to nobody then that I loved Wakenhyrst. The story follows Maud as she grows up in Wake’s End, a crumbling old manor house (obviously) sitting on the edge of the Fens. We start the novel knowing that Maud’s father, Edmund, ends up in an institution painting images of demons, having apparently suffered a mental breakdown and killed a man in a horribly violent attack. Maud has remained resolutely silent on what really happened until, as the novel opens, she finds herself in dire financial straits and decides to sell her story to fund much needed repairs to Wake’s End.

Wakenhyrst alternates between Maud recounting her story in her own words and Edmund’s diary entries, which Maud is reading in an effort to get to know her father (at least initially…). I love a good diary entry in a novel anyway but the way they’re used in Wakenhyrst is just brilliant. We first see Edmund early on through Maud’s eyes as a child, then as she grows up and finds him increasingly difficult to live with, she hunts out his diary to try and learn more about him. Often if authors include diary entries, it’s to give readers an edge over characters; Paver uses them to put us firmly on Maud’s side and to let us share in her frustrations and fears. The characters are all so well drawn and so well balanced but Maud has a special place in my heart. By the end, I was so firmly attached to her that I cried as some of her secrets were revealed.

What I adore most about Paver’s writing is how she balances the hints at supernatural with the personal struggles of her characters. In Wakenhyrst‘s case, the uncertainty sits around Edmund and whether he is losing his mind or whether the phantoms that he sees are something darker and more real wafting in from the Fens. It also plays on the religious ideas of the early 20th century and the demons that so many believed might lurk around every corner, and naturally on the folklore surrounding the Fens. The atmosphere is damp and oppressive and looms over everything. Perfect for getting consumed by during the winter.

Death freezes everything. Whatever you did or didn’t do, whatever you said or left unsaid: none of that is ever going to change. You have no more chances to say sorry or make things right. No more chances for anything except regret

All of which isn’t to say that I think Wakenhyrst is perfect. If I’m being picky, it felt a little longer than it needed to be to me, a slight flaw that means I’ve given it 4.5 rather than 5 out of 5 stars. Some of the extracts from Edmund’s diaries run long and can feel repetitive. It works in places, particularly later on in the novel when it really highlights the tangled and dangerous patterns of Edmund’s mind but I was less keen early on when there’s a lot of religious fervour and general academic ramblings. The ending more than makes up for the occasional lull in pace but the lulls are there all the same.

Overall: Who doesn’t like a sinister story set in a crumbling old house with supernatural undertones and secrets galore in the winter?! I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to call it a ghost story but if you like ghost stories, I’m sure you’ll love this.  And if you do pick this up and love it, make sure you also keep an eye out for Dark Matter, because it is perfection and it makes me sad that it isn’t more popular. Two recommendations for the price of one!

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Date finished: 07 September 2018

Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in April 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Chat: ‘A House of Ghosts’ by W. C. Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A House of Ghosts popped up in my inbox one day pitched by NetGalley as “And Then There Were None meets The Silent Companions“.  One of my favourite books of all time crossed with one of the best books I read in 2017? There was absolutely no way I could resist requesting it. My expectations were sky high when I first downloaded it so I suppose it’s probably a good thing that I left it a couple of months before I actually picked it up.

In some ways, I feel like it’s slightly unfair of me to burden those of you who are also big fans of either one of those books with my lofty expectation too because A House of Ghosts isn’t quite either of them. The conclusion that I’ve come to though is that actually in a way it is fair because it might nudge you to read this and then your life will be just a little bit better. Because while A House of Ghosts might well not be either of the novels that it seems to be being likened to, it is a really good one.

It’s set during World War I, on a remote island off the southern coast of England where Lord Highmount has convened a group of family and friends to host a seance to attempt to contact his two sons, who are believed to have died while serving on the Western Front.  After all of the guests have arrived, a storm cuts off the only route on and off the island, phone lines are tampered with (obviously) and events take a turn for the creepy.

The plot is one of those delightful tangles where everybody seems to have a solid motive for wanting at least one of the other residents of the abbey dead. I know that it’s a bit of cliche but as soon as the guests start feeling threatened, the secrets start tumbling out. Most of the story is told from the perspectives of Kate Cartwright and Captain Donovan, tasked with keeping an eye on Blackwater Abbey’s residents. I loved them both individually for different reasons and together they are perfection. Their relationship is so well written and them getting to know each other is the heartwarming light touch to what is an otherwise quite dark narrative.

Because not only is A House of Ghosts a cracking mystery, it also taps perfectly into the emotional effects of World War I, both on those that had served in the army and made it home and on those bearing the whole tragedy out at home.  The fraught emotions, the awful uncertainty of not knowing what happened to family members who were pronounced “missing, presumed dead” and the distrust of those in positions of power making decisions affecting thousands, including the story’s very own Lord Highmount, owner of an arms manufacturing empire. Murder alongside war might sound a bit much but the fine line is trodden sensitively.

Even with all of the mention of seances, I didn’t quite expect the novel to be as…otherworldly as it is. I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say that the book doesn’t just hint at ghostly goings on, it properly commits to the paranormal. You might need to suspend your sense of disbelief fairly regularly but I didn’t find it too much, even if it was a little disorientating at first. Readers of ‘traditional’ crime fiction might not be a fan but if you’re ok with your hauntings being more literal, you’ll be just fine.

Overall: The writing is sharp and so wonderfully British feeling. The plot is well paced and A House of Ghosts is nothing if not a page turner. If you’re looking for a winter read that is just a little bit different, this one should be appearing on your wishlist.

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Date finished: 25 November 2018

Pictured edition published: by Zaffre on 04 October 2018

Source: Received from the published in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley