In the spirit of winter

Dark Matter: a Ghost Story
by Michelle Paver

This book has all the perfect elements to interest me and yet somehow I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across it in a shop. An excellent find!

The bulk of the novel takes the form of a journal, kept by Jack Miller during an expedition to the Arctic in 1937. A down-at-heel London clerk who hates his job and resents that money troubles meant he had to give up his place at university and his dream of becoming a physicist, the opportunity to work as communications man for a meteorological study in Svalbard should be the ideal way out of his slump. He is almost put off by the other four members of the party being terribly upper class, but figures he can go off to do this for a year and then when he gets back there will be a war to fight in.

A prologue tells us that the expedition did not go well, that terrible things happened and at least one man died, so the atmosphere is ominous from the start. The tension is ramped up each time something goes wrong, but even without mishaps the fast-approaching Arctic winter is frightening enough. Paver does an excellent job of combining descriptions of the cold beauty of the 24-hour sunlight with explanations of how that will turn to 24-hour darkness without it ever feeling as though you are being lectured to.

Despite all the ramped-up fear, the early sections of this book really made me want to go to the Arctic. The setting came from Paver’s own journeys to various places in the North Pole and her first-hand knowledge really shows. She even, after conceiving the idea for this book, travelled to Svalbard during winter to experience camping and hiking in the endless darkness. As a qualified biochemist, lover of the Arctic and classic ghost stories, and published author of her own ghost stories, no-one could have been more qualified to write this story.

And it is brilliant and evocative and terrible but I was never quite convinced by the supernatural element. I would have been happy to see the terrors as a product of psychological disturbance, not an unusual outcome of overwintering in the Arctic, but the novel seems to try hard to persuade us that the ghost is real, that it is much more sinister and inexplicable than mere madness. I think more ambiguity on this point would have worked better for me.

But aside from that I loved it. Paver has done a wonderful job of developing the relationships between the men, and I especially enjoyed the growing closeness between Jack and one of the husky dogs – beautifully done. She has also very effectively created the fear and loneliness and self-doubt. Immediately after finishing this I started reading Shackleton’s account from the Antarctic and it really highlighted how Paver had got the tone spot-on.

First published in 2010 by Orion. Paperback edition published 2011.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Chasing Bawa