I’m already tired… and my impression is everyone else is as well. It’s the 12th January 2019 – a Saturday after the year’s first full week of work. But it’s not work, it’s the headlines – Brexit remains hot gossip. So with what remains of my waking hours, after I’ve clocked-out into the London twilight, I seem to spend most of my time either writing or reading.
This week, on my way home on Wednesday night, I picked up a wonderfully curious novel at London Bridge that goes by the name “Dark Matter” (by Michelle Paver). Don’t get fooled into thinking it is some non-fiction tome of physical science. Dark Matter is about ghosts, the supernatural and – of course – the not-so-proverbial “things” that go bump in the night.
The book follows the tale of our main character, Jack; being a well to do yet hard done by Londoner, who leaves his uninspiring life in Tooting to join a motley crew on a year-long geographical survey to Spitsbergen (Svalbard in today’s money).
In Jack’s mind, the expedition represents a rapturous opportunity. But even from the first few pages of the book, a heavy and enduring disquiet pervades his story. Jack comes from a troubled and broken childhood. He is ill at ease and incongruent with the fortune, pride and confidence his companions carry.
Yet these circumstances and antecedents form only the bedrock for what comes to pass. Their voyage to Spitsbergen is enchanting yet their destination is ominous and scarcely discussed amongst their withdrawn shipmates. Their journey ultimately takes them to Gruhuken – a seemingly abandoned bay that is nestled within the splendour of Spitsbergen’s icy deserts and wastes.
While their intentions are promising and their spirits high, they are overborne by the silent gloom of Gruhuken. The still surroundings and the growing nights quietly gnaw at the nerves of our adventurers.
The tale is also largely written through Jack’s diary, which amplifies the mounting tension and emotion that Gruhuken inspires. At times, we are given a glimpse of the thing, the apparition that seems to haunt the bay and have designs on Jack. The star-crossed circumstances of the expedition mean that Jack ultimately finds himself alone, with only their trusty pack of huskies, in the consuming bay. Isolation, endless night and the unforgiving environment conspire as dread evolves into terror and Jack wonders if he must face the thing that stalks his sanity.
Dark Matter is a recommendable and thoroughly engaging read – it took me barely two (quite late) nights to read it as I simply had to finish it. It is a searching book and – even on its last page – it questions what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and what it means to be alone. The book is a beautifully-crafted and contemporary addition to the British ghost story genre, albeit set in an alien and isolated land.
Dark Matter’s author, Michelle Paver (… website here), is a former solicitor and partner at a City law firm but has since published an outstanding portfolio of books. Her next book, Wakenhyrst, (a thriller!) is due out in April 2019. I am currently leafing through Thin Air, which is another captivating ghost tale. Whether Dark Matter, Thin Air or Wakenhyrst, I would certainly recommend that you read at least one of this acclaimed author’s books.