Icier climes have always held me in their magnetic sway. Whether this is because the thought of being wrapped up in thick woolly jumpers and multitudinous layers, to repeal the biting cold, makes me feel reassured that I will soon be safe and warming when I return indoors. Or whether it is because the thought of them evokes the idea of magnificent beauty with all the ice, clear skies and dancing light shows they offer, thanks to the Northern Lights. Or indeed whether Narnia, Frankenstein, Captain Scott and the sinking of the Titanic have all impressed their magic in my minds eye… One thing is certain. The reading of any book that promises to evoke such a setting will immediately take preference when it comes to selecting titles that I would like to read (just ask my groaning TBR pile).
‘Dark Matter’ clearly offers such a setting. It also offers up a ghost story. If you know anything about me by now, then you know I am a sucker for a such works! As I am sure any reader will attest though, sometimes great premises do not always live up to the hype. Not so with this tome. It delivers with a strange, pared-back abundance of brilliance. Much like Susan Hill, Michelle Paver knows how to craft a gripping ghost story. It wears its mastery lightly, building its tension slowly in a measured fashion that allows your fear to ratchet to unbearable heights without any obvious awareness of how this is achieved. It is genuinely chilling. My senses were heightened and I was transported to the overwhelming isolation that the location, emotional state of the central protagonist and the solitude that the circumstances of the plot afforded. It also factored in just the right amount of ambiguity necessary, for the eventual denouement of this sorry tale.
Otherness was key to this story, on many levels. Societally. Individually. Alien landscapes. They all added to the unraveling of this unsettling story (of the deliberate sort- as this is what Michelle Paver clearly intends so that we truly feel the fear of the central character). What was surprising to me, was the detail with which she explores the reality of living in Artic Lands as we confront our fears, through the eyes of Jack Miller. While our imaginations conjure giant icebergs, crisp sub-zero temperatures and eternal winter, what we don’t allow for are the massive swings between hours of daylight or darkness that also occur. How distressing must it be to be plunged into either mostly daylight or mostly darkness (emphasis on the latter). This must surely add to any escalating departure from sanity, merely from the difference of experience that it offers someone used to less extreme daily oscillations of light. The acute, accompanying isolation that adjoins this sensory- depravation must be every but as horrific as Paver conveys. I have chills just thinking about it.
While this icy fear is all consuming, and a barometer of great success, in terms of the effect that a well executed ghost story will muster, we must also give pause to the structural mastery used to mirror it’s very tight plotting. I found the use of a journal, as a means of delivering this story with further incremented fear, to be an astute addition. Not only did it frame the fear, by allowing us to access Jack’s vulnerability and unease but it also was a nod to that other Artic horror, ‘Frankenstein’. This subtle association adds another layer of meaning to our understanding of ‘Dark Matter’ as it links the desperate, lonely, hopelessness conveyed by Mary Shelly in her work in a subliminal way. It also reminded me of Sarah Moss’ ‘Cold Earth’ (which is Scandi-crime before it was ever a popular cultural theme) and it’s equally barren and relentless plot/landscape. All this hopelessness is foreshadowed, and I think exploited by Paver to great effect while we edge toward the climax of this gripping ghostly tale. My only caveat is this: think very carefully about where you read this story, as it will transport you. Make sure you have something warm and comforting to hand, to reacclimatise you once you have finished- or your own sleepless nights will follow…..
You have been warned