No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2017/18: Dark Matter: A Ghost Story -- Michelle Paver

I’ve also flicked through this journal, which was a mistake. I’m shocked at how my handwriting’s changed. I used to write a neat copperplate hand, but since I’ve been alone, it’s degenerated into a spidery scrawl. Without reading a word, you can see the fear.
The novel begins in London in 1937. Jack Miller has a chip on his shoulder, a physics degree from UCL, and a job he hates. When a group of wealthy young men advertise for a radio operator to form part of an expedition to the Arctic, Jack jumps at the chance: he has nobody to leave behind, nothing -- apparently -- to lose.

The expedition is beset by trouble from the start. One man drops out after the death of his father: another breaks a leg and has to return to England before ever setting foot on the beach at Gruhuken. Maybe he's the lucky one: the skipper of the boat that takes them there is keen to dissuade them from setting up base in that particular location. It's bad luck, he tells them. Things happen there.

The little expedition is now down to three men (Jack himself, the 'golden boy' Gus, and Algie, who is beginning to display some unsettling behaviour) and a number of huskies. Jack doesn't like the dogs: he isn't very keen on the traces of previous human occupation at Gruhuken -- a half-ruined trappers' hut, a 'bear post' where food would be hung away from the sleeping quarters. And he doesn't feel at ease with his companions.

The Arctic night is coming --months of darkness -- and Gus falls ill: he and Algie head for civilisation, leaving Jack alone. Or ... not alone. From time to time he glimpses another figure: he smells paraffin: the dogs are nervy.

The meat of Dark Matter is Jack's journals. We see, as Jack does not, that the darkness and solitude are affecting him: that he is making errors of judgement, and that his determination to put on a brave face, in his infrequent radio conversations with Algie and Gus ("JACK YOU ARE SO BRAVE! EXPEDITION OWES ALL TO YOU!"), is ... unhealthy.

With only the dogs for company -- well, he's visited by a trapper, who tries to convince him to leave Gruhuken -- Jack becomes increasingly aware of his environment. He bonds with Isaak, the most intelligent and loyal of the dogs: but Isaak is scared too.

Dark Matter builds slowly and chillingly. I found myself startling at shadows while I read: Jack's unease, sharpening to fear, was simply and effectively told. He's not, to be honest, an especially likeable character (that chip on his shoulder, his desperate need for approval, an underlying bitterness at the iniquities of life) but his solitary terror does evoke a very human response of compassion. And the climax of the novel is genuinely terrifying: words on a page, first person past tense, yet it terrifies.

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