Michelle Paver is a a well respected children’s novelist, whose work includes the best selling series – Chronicles Of Ancient Darkness. After the acclaim of these novels she has walked away from children’s fiction and turned her pen to adult ghost stories, with her novel, Dark Matter.
Dark Matter is set in the year 1937, when the world is still reeling from the devastation of the First World War and concerns are growing when the mention of a Mr Hitler passes in conversation. The novel sees our hero Jack venture on an Arctic expedition with a group of middle class ‘toffs’ in order to study weather patterns. The majority of the book is written in a journal style as we follow Jack and his life away from bustling London.
It would be easy to give away much of the novel, here, but suffice to say that the book revolves around a ghost and its torment of Jack as he attempts to survive the endless nights of the Arctic. It’s a book that ponders the human mind and the fragility of loneliness. Many of Jack’s musings are retrospective as he looks back on his day and wonders how much of what he is experiencing is in fact real or merely a figment of his deteriorating mind.
Something is lingering in the eternal darkness of the Arctic Winter and unfortunate circumstances require Jack to face the darkness alone. Dark Matter plays on a fear that many have experienced, a fear of the dark. But Michelle Paver creates a new fear, not of the darkness itself, but of what lives within the darkness.
The beauty of the novel is Paver’s writing and her clear passion for the Arctic. Paver has stated in interviews that she adores the Arctic and has visited several times, filling her study with artefacts and pictures. This passion is delivered in the prose that is almost poetic in it’s description of an icy wasteland. So much so, that even when Paver isn’t describing a particularly spooky moment, there is a creeping feeling of tension as she paints a picture with words.
And when she does lay on the fear, it is bewildering. That’s not to say that Dark Matter is scary but when reading it, in the right conditions, you feel as if there is someone standing directly behind your shoulder. As I read I actually glanced behind me from time to time, just to check. But the novel does require you to read in a certain way. To explain, what I mean is that a novel like this can only be enjoyed to the fullest when all is quiet and when it’s late. Otherwise all tension is lost and that would be a crime to Paver’s work.
This is a book designed to make your skin crawl and it won’t achieve that feeling if you’re reading this on a bus. Thankfully it’s a short novel, that can be polished off in a matter of a few days. The pacing is superb and suitable for bitesize reading and reaches its denouement with both a sadness and a respect for what came before. The sadness is more an issue with the fact that the book has to end, at all, and shows wonderfully what Paver has created.
Having said that, if the novel was any longer, it wouldn’t work. Jack’s journey and his friendship with the Huskie, ‘Issak’, is a beautiful one and one that would be sullied if Michelle had bumped up the page count with filler. Every page, every word, is used to the fullest and the book is a strong novel on its own but as a book that can reignite a dying genre, it’s tremendously important.