😮 😮 😮 😮 😮
It’s 1937 and war clouds are gathering over Europe. Jack Miller is poor and struggling in a job he hates, so he jumps at the chance to join an expedition to Gruhuken, an abandoned mining settlement in the Arctic. Part scientific expedition, part adventure for the group of upper-class men who are arranging it, for Jack it is an escape and a possible way back into the scientific studies he had to abandon when his father died. But the expedition begins to hit trouble even before they leave London, with a couple of the men having to drop out at the last moment. And the troubles don’t end there – once they are in Gruhuken a series of events mean that eventually Jack is left alone to keep the expedition alive…and the long dark Arctic winter is beginning…and Jack begins to feel he may not be as alone as he thinks…
This is billed as a ghost story, and like the best of those it’s totally amibiguous, not to mention totally terrifying! Is there a malevolent presence haunting Gruhuken, or is it all a product of Jack’s mind? Since the story is told through his journal, his is the only perspective we have, and we see his mind being affected by the vastness of this empty landscape and the ever-deepening darkness. And the loneliness. And the silence. And the ice beginning to freeze his only escape route – the sea…
Did I mention it’s terrifying? There was actually one point late at night where I thought ‘Nope! Not reading that till the sun’s shining tomorrow!’ And yet, what happens? Very little – no gore-fest, no clanking chains or shrieks (except mine), no werewolves, vampires or zombies. It’s all done by a brilliantly executed build-up of psychological terror – from ‘don’t go there’ warnings from the captain of the ship to things barely glanced from the corner of the eye, sensations of a presence, distorted perspectives, and mysterious legends of barbarous cruelty. And all added to some fabulous descriptive writing that puts the reader right into this cold, dark, threatening landscape where the only contact with the outside world is through the fragile valves of Jack’s wireless, and where help would take days to arrive, if at all.
The depiction of Jack’s growing loneliness is superb. At first resentful of his companions’ effortless social superiority, he gradually begins a tentative friendship with Gus, the leader of the group – a friendship that borders on hero-worship. And it’s for Gus’ sake that he tries to keep the failing expedition alive. As a natural loner, he thinks he’ll be fine on his own, but soon learns the difference between being alone in the midst of the teeming city streets of London and the total solitude of his new surroundings. Well, maybe total solitude – or maybe not. (Cue spooky music.)
Any regular visitor will know of my aversion to first person present tense narratives. I’ve explained in the past that the reason I usually hate these is because they are used when they’re not appropriate or else they are handled clumsily. This book is an example of how FPPT should be used – Paver handles both person and tense brilliantly, slipping in and out of present and past at exactly the right moments and never once allowing herself to be trapped into a particular tense when it doesn’t suit the narrative. As a result, this achieves its aim of reading like a genuine contemporaneous journal, and should be a compulsory text in all creative writing classes. But only ones that are held in daylight because – did I mention it’s terrifying?
There are lots of other things I’d love to praise but really this is one where every incident adds to the overall effect so I’ll restrict myself to saying cryptically – loved all the stuff about Jack and the huskies, and loved the way Paver used human contact to increase the effect of the all-pervading loneliness. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t – do!
I dare you…
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Thanks yet again to Lady Fancifull whose brilliant review talked me into this one. (Though I’m deeply concerned that she tried to get me to read it on a dark winter night with the snow whirling and the wind rattling the windows. I thought she liked me…)