Dark Matter had been sitting on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I’m not sure why I left it so long. I’d heard it was good and as a fan of anything reminiscent of The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration I knew I would enjoy it. And it says it’s a ghost story on the front cover. What’s not to like?
The story, in case you don’t know, follows Jack as he is selected to join a scientific expedition to Spitsbergen (that’s Svalbard, His Dark Materials fans). The book takes the form of his journal, written prior to and during events on the island.
I will admit, I didn’t particularly enjoy the opening part of the book. The issues of class and Jack’s resentment toward the other members of the expedition felt a little cack-handed, but once they all set sail the story came to life.
Paver’s descriptions of the Arctic - from the majestic empty landscapes and grubby sealing towns to the grimly stoic Norwegian sailors – really set the scene. She’s obviously done her research – the setting where the main bulk of the story takes place, the fictional Gruhuken, is wonderfully described and I can still picture all of it perfectly.
The character of Jack also develops nicely. Initially we are presented with a man in love with the desolation of Spitsbergen who ignores his reservations in a way, we come to see, his companions do not, mainly in order to impress them. Later as permanent darkness comes and people go, we begin to see a truer picture of Jack, alone with just his thoughts, his daily routine and the dogs for company.
What I really loved was the ghost element. As endless night arrives, the reader is left to make their own mind up – are we witnessing cabin fever mixed with a healthy dose of sailor superstition (or perhaps a mental breakdown), or is there something truly supernatural and evil going on?
Many ghost stories fail to do anything for me but the suspense and building feeling of dread was excellently done here. While reading one key passage an old lady coughed next to me at the bus stop and I jumped quite unexpectedly. Luckily nobody noticed though, because I styled my way out of it by pretending to fidget a bit.