Although Dark Matter billed as a ghost story, I wouldn’t say that I would have guessed that’s what it was from the front cover with its idyllic scene of birds circling in a clear sky above a wintry sea. It almost looked like it could be a story about a romantic fling in a remote setting.
But looks can be deceptive.
So to the story then. This is the diary of one Jack Miller who is part of an expedition aiming to spend a year in Gruhuken; a remote region of northern Norway where the winters pass in complete darkness and cold so intense that the sea freezes. The plan is to study the biology, geology and meteorology of the High Arctic but Jack’s real reason for going is to escape the life he hates in London. Joining the crew of public schoolboy (that’s an English public school which is the best of the best and only for the incredibly wealthy) friends is an uneasy decision for the working class Jack but ultimately he realises that this could be his last chance to make something of himself. That and possibly the chance to escape the looming war (the novel is set in 1937, just before the outbreak of World War II).
The voyage to Gruhuken is filled with ominous portents, before arriving the troop lose two of their number and the captain who is conveying them is extremely reluctant to make the entire trip to the headland. Once they arrive and are alone in their camp, things are no better.
To begin with I wasn’t enthralled. The story contains all the expected elements for a ghost story, unknown figures mysterious noises and unexplained happenings but it wasn’t truly gripping. The tension builds slowly, and there are whole expanses of time where nothing ominous occurs at all and the only thing of note in Jack’s diary is a walk on the beach or a discussion amongst the group as he relaxes a little more.
There are a number of different elements at work here, from the tense group dynamic to the inadequacy Jack feels as a result of his poor background to the actual mysterious goings on which none of the team ever discuss. All of which contributes to a real understanding of Jack and a sense of camaraderie with him.
As time wears on and he finds himself alone on Gruhuken as the winter edges in, the story starts to pick up; not through any increased number of ‘happenings’ but more through his fear which is partly bred from his isolation.
The final 70 pages which I read on my way home tonight had me absolutely riveted to the page and I could feel the fear Jack was living with. At one point I actually leant away from the page in the same way you might hide your eyes watching a scary film. This is an incredibly well executed psychological thriller which builds so slowly that you don’t see the terrifying part coming.
But apart from that it’s also a neat study of the Arctic, and a region of Norway that few people ever see. I know from an author Q+A at the back of my copy that Paver did very in-depth research for the book drawing on reports of trappers, sealers, and other visitors to the region as well as making several visits herself so the detail contained in the story is both precise and accurate.
I didn’t expect to be writing such a rave review of this book when I started reading it but The Sunday Times had it right when they called Dark Matter ‘deeply affecting’.
And I can not tell you how glad I was to come out of the tube into the sunlight.