H.E. Bulstrode

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Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

Paver’s story is dark, unsettling, and gripping. Rather like in her later novel Wakenhyrst, the narrative opens some years after the events that it discloses, this time in the form of a letter of reply to an enquiry concerning the psychological impact of isolation upon one of the members of an Arctic expedition. It is testy in tone, as befits the respondent’s desire to consign the events in question firmly to the forgotten past. The remainder of the novel is narrated almost exclusively in the form of extracts from the protagonist’s journal.

Dark Matter chooses an unusual setting for a ghost story, transporting us to the High Arctic: the fictitious Gruhuken, on the very real island of Spitsbergen. It also takes us back to an earlier age, for this is a period piece set in 1937, with the shadow of one world war hanging over it, and another looming before it. This is one of the forms of darkness that swirls about the characters and their world, especially the protagonist – Jack Miller. Thwarted in his academic ambitions by a lack of means, this young man sees a potential escape from his frustrated dead-end existence by applying to join the team of an expedition to Spitsbergen. Despite living in London and being surrounded by its teeming millions, he is both emotionally and socially isolated, and yet it is in his journey to a place of solitude that he finds companionship and human warmth, albeit fleetingly.

As would be expected with such a theme, time, and setting, the world encountered by the reader is exclusively male. Besides the expedition members – all Oxbridge graduates except for Jack, who keenly feels a sense of exclusion from this elite privileged club – the other characters we meet are stoic Norwegians. These sealers and trappers are the sort of men who say little, and even less about that which they do not wish to speak. That there is something about Gruhuken that the latter find disturbing soon becomes apparent, but as to the precise nature of what that happens to be, that is only something that becomes apparent as the narrative unfolds.

Dark Matter vividly describes the environment and surroundings of Spitsbergen, and conjures up the magical, and psychologically disorientating, effect of its white Arctic nights, that eventually yield to an unceasing winter darkness. It is this descent into darkness, and the gradual stripping away of the certainties and conveniences of modern life, that Paver manages to capture so well: the creeping doubt, the claustrophobia, the growing sense of isolation. Fear steals forth from the darkness, and the rational mind is eclipsed. Bit by bit, the horror of what once happened at Gruhuken makes itself known, and . . . This is without doubt, a haunting book; an excellent read.

Kindle readers may also be interested in A Ghost Story Omnibus: Collected Ghost Stories 2016-2018.

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