Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Is it cheating to review a book that I listened to as an audiobook, rather than reading it myself? Some might say is it, but I don't think so - especially when that book works so brilliantly well as a read-aloud ghost story.

I bought Dark Matter by Michelle Paver largely because Amazon recommended it to me - yes, I do fall terribly easily for those sorts of marketing ploys, I'm afraid, but take some consolation in the fact that while it was Amazon who recommended it, I actually bought it from iTunes.

I was also unaware at the time that Paver also writes a highly-acclaimed and popular young adult fantasy series set in the Stone Age. Dark Matter, however, is a very grown-up read. Very grown-up indeed.

Set in the 1930s and narrated by radio operator and frustrated physicist Jack Miller, Dark Matter centres around an expedition to the Arctic, in which four men intend to spend a year making a scientific study of Gruhuken, a tiny island in the Norwegian-owned Svalbard archipelago. Jack's voice is strong, compelling, complex and convincing in every detail, right down to his simmering class-driven resentment of the easy, rugby-field camaraderie of the other three members of the expedition, particularly of the friendship between the crass, buffoonish Algy and charming, charismatic Gus, and rarely have I come across a horror story in which any character has been so strongly-realised. Jack isn't always likeable - he's irritable, impatient, unforgiving, somewhat bitter and almost entirely unsuited in character to spend months confined to a cabin with anybody, let alone three ex-public schoolboys. But despite his faults, I found it impossible not to care about him, to sympathise with him and frequently, I must confess, to identify with him.

The first member of the team is injured en route and must be taken back to the mainland with a broken leg, and it seems that Algy, Gus and Jack might not make it to Gruhuken either, when their Norwegian captain, Eriksson, initially refuses to take them there. But it's Jack who persuades Eriksson to make the journey... and it's Jack who agrees to stay on Gruhuken, alone, after Gus has to be shipped off the island for an appendectomy and the increasingly unstable Algy accompanies him. Already disturbed by sightings of a strange, ugly figure on the island, but dismissing them rationally as 'an echo', Jack prepares for a long, sunless Arctic winter on Gruhuken, living in constant darkness with only a radio and the dogs he once feared for company. Convinced that he, a logical rationalist, can be the one to keep Gus' hopes of a successful expedition alive, he sets out to prove himself, only to discover that the 'echo' is not the ultimately harmless scientific phenomenon he believed it to be.

The gradual building of the horrors that ensue as the mysterious figure appears more frequently, and as Jack reads Gus' journal and realises that he is not the only one who has seen it, is truly chilling. There were moments as I listened to this story in bed at night at which I wondered if I would ever be brave enough to pull back the curtains and look outside into the darkness again, and one of the story's great strengths is that it simply doesn't stop where most ghost stories do. There is no respite for Jack or the reader, nowhere to hide, nowhere safe, and increasingly few comforts as Jack's physical surroundings deteriorate along with his mental state.

And yet, amid the oppressive, claustrophobic sense of horror - exacerbated by the bleak Arctic landscape and the slow passing of time in the perpetual winter darkness - Michelle Paver also manages to portray the gradual building of two relationships, one obvious, the other more subtle and at best only semi-requited. The touching sensitivity of both these relationships, and his own self-aware analysis of them, elevates Jack to something far beyond the haunted protagonist of a brilliant ghost story, and adds an extra dimension to this strangely old-fashioned tale of terror in the harsh beauty of a perfectly-rendered Arctic landscape.

So, highly recommended then, this one. Read it, shiver, hide under the duvet and weep. You won't be sorry.

Until you have nightmares.

Oh, and if anyone does fancy getting the audiobook version like I did, it's unabridged, and read absolutely beautifully by Jeremy Northam. I can't praise his performance enough - brilliant. Every accent perfect, every nuance spot-on.

Comments

  1. Really nice review, I enjoyed reading it, and agree with you wholeheartedly both about the book and Jeremy Northam's performance. Thank you!

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  2. Thanks - I've always thought Jeremy Northam was a really good actor, and he was the perfect narrator for this story. :-)

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  3. I agree, it's the perfect marriage of book and reader. :-)And a perfect book for a cold, dark winter's evening
    Jeremy has read a fair few audiobooks, and all are excellent. I particularly recommend his reading of Henry James's The Aspern Papers, and a collection of James short stories entitled The Real Thing and Other Stories, both available from Silksoundbooks.

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  4. I only can second this fantastic review by Ray in every point! Michelle Parver`s book and almost better yet the audio-book (praise to wonderful narrator Jeremy Northam) has absolutely hepped up me! (Sorry for bad English)

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  5. Sorry, I/Anonymous mean of course Joanne Sheppard`s review and Michelle PAVER! My enthusiasm makes me sometimes "stumbling"!

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