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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Books - Dark Matter - Michelle Paver

Star rating - 9/10

If you are looking for a ghost story to warm these cold winter nights, then you need look no further than Michelle Paver’s excellent ‘Dark Matter’. Paver is better known for her children’s books, and this is her first foray into the world of adult spine chillers. And you really won’t want to put it down.

It is the story of a scientific expedition to the Arctic Circle in 1937 by a group of privileged young Oxbridge graduates, along with Jack Miller, who they take with them as the wireless operator of the trip. There are class tensions between the party- as you might guess from their exceedingly posh names such as Gus, Algernon and Teddy – and the middle class Jack. He has no family or friends of his own and is glad to leave his unsatisfying job as an office clerk to tag along on this boys’ own adventure, which has echoes of Captain Scott’s own ill fated enterprise. The story is told in the form of his journal, where he records his daily routines, thoughts, and eventually, his blackest fears about the malevolent force that he perceives and then confronts.

Their destination is the fictional Gruhuken, deep in Arctic Circle, which, despite the hostile environment and battle against the elements, was also the home mining prospectors in times past. It is a fantastically apt setting for a ghost story – with its harsh conditions; extreme weather; constant day then night for months on end; the spectacular Northern Lights; and the relics of animals and prospectors alike who have perished there. Paver vividly describes this inhospitable and bleak place, which the whalers on the boat that takes the men there, try to warn them against, but to no avail.

Gradually the others all fall by the wayside, leaving brave, or incredibly stupid depending on your point of view, Jack alone and isolated to carry on with the expedition’s aims. He is left there with his just his thoughts for weeks on end, which would be enough to drive anyone to the point of insanity – but he is not really alone, there is something evil and supernatural out there. Of course there is – it’s a ghost story...

Jack’s battles against the wild place he finds himself in, with only his husky dogs for company. It is touching that way that he comes to like, then depend on the dogs, – particularly Isaak, who comes to be his favourite, after his initial dislike of his canine companions. But it his relationship with Gus – the Adonis like leader of the expedition, who is fantastically good looking with his chiselled cheekbones and deep blue eyes, that is particularly fascinating. Jack does not acknowledge or explore his feelings in depth until after Gus has left the station, but the sexual tension and longing that he feels afterwards are sensitively explored.

In some ways his feelings for Gus battle for supremacy with his feelings, and horror of the ghost that haunts the place in which he finds himself so totally cut off from the world. Paver keeps the suspense and mystery going for just long enough to get you to the final pages of this gripping ghost story – perfect to curl up with and ignore the ice and snow outside.

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