Friday, 10 September 2010
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
It’s 1937, and Jack Miller’s plans to become a physicist have been hit by the Depression, so he is working in a dead-end job when he hears of an expedition to the High Arctic in need of a radio operator. He’s initially put off by the four ex-public schoolboys he meets, but realising how important the expedition might be in shaping the rest of his life, agrees to go.
From the outset, however, the expedition seems fated, and by the time they arrive in Norway, they are already one person down – the doctor of the team has had to stay in England following the death of his father. Nonetheless, the remaining members decide to go ahead – after all, how could they possibly guess that before long only Jack would be left to face the Arctic winter alone? The first obstacle is overcoming the reluctance of Eriksson, the skipper of the boat they have chartered, to land them at Gruhuken, the site they have chosen for their camp. He won’t give reasons, but insists that it’s not a good place. It’s not a virgin site, there is a ruined mine there, with the remains of a cabin, and a “bear post”, used to attract polar bears so that they could be shot.
From the very start, the bear post makes Jack uneasy, something he puts down at first to his distaste for fellow expedition-member Algie’s evident pleasure in killing animals. Gradually, however, he comes to a conviction that the post is the focus of…not a haunting – the rational Jack can’t entertain that idea – but a memory, an echo of something from the past. And alone and afraid in the Arctic night, Jack is at risk, not just from whatever may or may not be outside the cabin, but also of the loss of routine induced by his own fear.
Paver strikes a perfect balance between describing the beauty of the Arctic and the creeping paranoia of the people at Gruhuken. The chill is cracklingly tangible as winter settles in to the remote bay, and more so when it becomes clear that even the dogs are afraid of something. Paver’s background in writing for young adults shows to the good, I think: at 200-odd pages, it’s a tightly written story, ideal for one so hard to put down and, with its pre-war setting, feels like a book from an earlier tradition of story-telling. I found myself thinking of M.R. James while I was reading, and at times, of John Buchan’s Sickheart River, or some of his supernatural tales. This is a story not just for one deliciously creepy Hallowe’en, but for many to come.