Book review: Dark Matter, Michelle Paver

Dark Matter book coverI picked up Dark Matter for two reasons. Firstly because I’d read Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, and absolutely loved them – I highly recommend if you like good YA fiction – so was interested to see what her adult fiction was like. Secondly, because I’d seen a tweet from @bookelfleeds talking about how scary this book was – and despite being an absolute wuss, I do love a good scary book now and then!

The plot:

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 be the wireless operator on 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.

And Gruhuken is not uninhabited.

Jack is not alone.

Something walks there in the dark.

I absolutely loved this book up until about three-quarters through. It is wonderfully atmospheric: the bleak loneliness of the Arctic is splendidly described, so much though that despite the last few unseasonably warm days, I was shivering as I read it. The first few glimpses of the “one who walks”, and Jack’s gradual realisation of how much danger he was in, were genuinely frightening. This is definitely not a bedtime read!

I also loved the characterisation. I thought the conflict between Jack’s lower-middle-class, down-on-his-luck background, and that of his privileged, upper-class, obliviously wealthy companions on the expedition, was very well written. I would actually have liked to see more exploration of this! Jack’s determination to stay on despite his terror, to prove himself to his companions and to “save” the mission, was convincing and empathetic.

As I say, I loved this until about three-quarters through. However, then you find out exactly what it is that’s haunting Gruhuken and why, and I really felt that spoiled a lot of the tension for me. The book stopped being quite so scary from that point, which was a real shame as it had kept up an incredible amount of tension up until then. The actual description of the circumstances leading to the haunting was pretty horrific, and some people might find that scary enough in itself, but for me I thought it would have been much more frightening if it had kept a bit more mystery. Somehow, an evil presence that is only hinted at and never really explained is far scarier than one which is fully explained and described: I like to be able to use my imagination!

A good read, and I would certainly read more of Michelle Paver’s adult work, but the ending was a bit of a let-down for me.

Verdict: 3/5

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