Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

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The loneliness, stillness, and ability to manipulate perception that the polar regions possess, have long been linked to a sense of the uncanny, and Michelle Paver has utilised that unease for her enjoyable, if not altogether successful, ghost story.  Set in 1937, with war clouds on the horizon, Jack Miller joins a small scientific expedition to the Arctic as its radio operator.  The group’s numbers are whittled down through mishap until Jack finds himself alone, apart from the company of one of the huskies, as the seemingly endless night sets in and in his cabin fever he finds that ghosts can be as much inside one as outside.

 The method of telling the story through Jack’s diary works well, restricting our perspective on events.  We get to know him, his hopes and fears, and how his ambitions have been wrecked by the loss of his family and the Depression.  The companions remain fairly shadowy to the reader because they are filtered through Jack’s point of view, which enables the creation of a sense of ambiguity.  Thinking that he has been singled out as victim of whatever might be stalking the bay where the camp is situated, only when he reads another character’s notebook does he realise that he was not alone in entertaining fears about the place, and that his efforts to maintain a façade of normality have been misinterpreted.  Jack is a double outsider, both from the group in terms of his background (University College London rather than Oxbridge, living in Tooting), and by staying at a site where all visitors are unwelcome.  The novel is as much an exploration of class, the sense of inferiority it can engender, and the extent of male attachment, as it is a ghost story.

The descriptions of the environment seem authentic; Paver says in an afterword that she visited Spitsbergen (Svalbard) twice, and you feel that her trips have been put to effective use.  The research is used lightly, but the sense of realism is an effective foundation for the growing unease that Jack feels.  The expedition on the face of it sounds implausible, a bunch of public school types with no prior experience of surviving in such harsh conditions going off for a year, trusting in their upper class confidence to get them through.  Yet Paver provides a supplement describing the successful Oxford University Arctic Expedition which took place in 1935-6, one of a number of such efforts mounted in the period.  She needed to have an unrealistically small number of participants in her story than the 1935 trip had in order to be able to use isolation as a means of generating tension, but both tap into the sense of English pluck and sang-froid in the face of danger.

Despite the fine evocation of this inhospitable region, I did have a few reservations about the story.  It is fine using a diary device, but that only really works when a character is writing retrospectively of events.  It is less useful for reporting direct action, when there would hardly be time to sit down and record it.  Here, the action climaxes when Jack says he will not write in the diary any more, yet there follows a section that reads as if he is recording it at the time, still in the first person, when he physically could not be, and this introduces a jarring note into the architecture of the novel.

Also, while I can just about believe that an isolated Norwegian trapper could speak a little English, it is very convenient that when we need to be told what had gone on at the campsite before the expedition’s arrival, Jack is able to sit down with a trapper who drops by and find out the necessary details.  In fact not only can our simple Norwegian communicate effectively in English, he is capable of reading Edgar Wallace!  The other slight issue is pacing.  For what is a fairly short book it has a leisurely feel.  The establishment of mood and character is effective in the first half, but Jack’s severe discomfort does not really move into gear until well into the second half.   The sections with Jack on his own certainly evoke the common unease of being alone in the dark – the fear of what is at the back of the cave, as Paver puts it – and his growing panic is depicted well, but it highlights a thinness in the scenario.  The novel is well written, but feels under-powered, as if she had a problem fitting a suitable aetiology for the haunting to the eerie atmosphere she so ably generates.

It is somewhat of a cliché to argue that ghost stories are by their nature optimistic because they presuppose the continuation of life after death, but as Jack in effect muses, the survival of the personality under the sort of conditions he imagines would be worse than extinction, and one has to agree.

First posted on Goodreads website 2 January 2013

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