Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

dark matterI dare you…

😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

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.)

arctic night

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?

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

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…

* * * * *

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…)

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 2 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

56 thoughts on “Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

  1. OOPS I got so overexcited there that I somehow pressed the post comment button when all I was trying to do was hit Caps Unlock as I’d somehow hit caps lock in my enthusiasm.

    I shall probably be moved to a re-read as we turn towards Autumn (I’m clearly made of stronger stuff than you) – – or more masochistic. A perfect Halloween read………..just as long as you live in the city with neighbours all around you. Certainly NOT one to be read if you are renting a holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere.

    I’m delighted you loved it as much as I did. I should have taken bets on your five star, and might have done rather well too, out of it, since our spectacular failure over book accord with The Goldfinch. I’m still trying to work out ways to turn two of my favourite bloggers, you and Jilanne, towards the light of true finchy believers

    • Thank goodness! I thought you’d been eaten! It was when I feared for Isaak that I had to stop for a bit – oddly I wasn’t so concerned about poor Jack!

      Well, this one goes a little towards redeeming your reputation after The Goldfinch horror, but you still have more work to do! Did you go on to read any more of Paver’s stuff?

      • Yes, I read one more, it was more of a kind of historical romance, and never made the blog – I think it got 3 1/2 which I rounded up to 4, but the blog stuff needs to be a proper 4 for me. My rounding, if i remember, only happened out of affection for Dark Matter, I think without DM it would have been a straight 3, possibly unread, because I wasn’t particularly attracted to the genre, only to Paver, because of DM!

        • Pity! I must look into her back catalogue and see if anything appeals. I got the impression she’d written something about wolves when I was looking for images – might look out for that ine, ‘cos I thought she did the huskies brilliantly!

      • Further reply re Isaak – it’s awful, isn’t it, something happening to a wee animal and continuing is impossible. I think (I’ve probably said this before) that my most sobbed through film was The Incredible Journey. It was kind of wonderful and utterly dreadful all at the same time, as you were constantly worrying about the two dogs and the cat, and whether they would make it. I remember feeling sick and anxious all through, as well as ‘aaah’ moments for a bit of a rest to keep me watching

        • I can’t read or watch stories about animals at all – they make me far more anxious and upset than books about people, no matter how much I remind myself they’re fictional. It all dates back to a picture book about a foal called Stormy, when I was about 4, and the centre page was a picture of Stormy’s mum being taken away in a horsebox… *reaches for the tissues*

    • Tons! In fact, I still have to have three medicinal choccies a day to cope with the aftereffects! It is on Kindle – click on the Amazon US Link at the bottom of the review and you’re there! But don’t read it when you’re all alone and the house is silent but for the mysterious creaking of the floorboards…

        • I am not especially easily spooked. There are a few, though. I know a movie or tv show is really scary if Harry immediately falls asleep. We both agreed to give the second season of X-Files a break. I’m most apt to get spooked if it is less violence and more suspense well done.

          • I get more scared in the cinema than watching at home – it must be a group thing. And books seldom really scare me, so I love when one does. Totally agree – suspense is much scarier than gore. Gore just makes me yawn, to be honest.

        • A talking cat!!! I bet the bird gets jealous of that… 😉

          Cats add to the spookiness though – they’re guaranteed to do that terrifying gazing at nothing thing just at the scariest moment… 😮

          • Ahh, yeah. Cats can freak some people right into the hospital for nervous and easily spooked people. I understand most of what he is trying to say, even. Unfortunately a lot of it has to do with he wants to go out of doors. And with his special needs I can’t endorse that.

            • I reckon it’s just as well I don’t understand Tuppence – I’m sure she swears like a trooper! Tommy on the other hand probably quotes love poetry…

            • Mark Twain said that cats swear. It sure does sound like it. I didn’t hear them last night, though. I was checking the perimeters before retiring for the night and saw no cats whatsoever. Then I walked over the front door and thought it was really dark in one corner. Then the dark corner moved over to help herself to the cat food I left out for the cats. A short stride from my door was a Florida black bear. From what I could see, it was a she and she probably weighs at least 400 pounds. (181 kg). I watched her for a bit…she didn’t mind me. She was scooping up cat kibble that was on our deck. She had both feet on the ground. The cats were freaked out and disappeared, but since she was ignoring me, I just observed that interesting creature until she waddled away into the dark.

            • Wow! How great! I’m afraid we have so little wildlife here now – the most exciting thing we ever really get are foxes, which worry me because I suspect when they’re hungry enough they would cheerfully go for cats. I’d love to have the chance to see bears or wolves in the wild, though I’d probably be scared stiff if I did!

            • I thought you would like to know about the bear. I was thinking of you and your bear-povertied homeland while I was watching her. I wanted to take a picture, but it was too dark to not use a flash and I did not want to make her uncomfortable. I have made sure that no more cat kibble is left out – they will have to eat when it is out from now on – but that was a gift.

            • Awww! Kibble must be great – one of my previous cats used to bring in live mice for me, and they always enjoyed a little bit of kibble before returning to the wild too! Maybe I should try some…

    • A winner! It’s not often a book scares me – I’m much more likely to be scared by a film. But this one is so brilliantly atmospheric! The FPPT was great – so much so I only became aware of it quite late on, and then realised how smoothly she had used it. Enjoy!

    • Thanks, TJ! 🙂 But don’t leave it too long – you need to read it before the evenings get too dark – you don’t know what might be out there… in the night… 😮

  2. How refreshing, FictionFan! A truly frightening suspense story that doesn’t rely on gore-fest or on an inordinate suspension of disbelief. The setting and context intrigue me, too. Whoever said scientists have to lead ho-hum lives??? Sounds like a book you pick up when you can deal with having the wit scared out of you.

    • Yes, very much in the tradition of the psychological scare story, like du Maurier – or Hitchcock. I love that ambiguity – so much scarier than hordes of zombies or vampires. And the Arctic setting was wonderfully atmospheric – a real chiller, and very well written!

  3. I never read detective stories that aren’t Chandler or Hammett (well, Doyle years ago), and I never read crime stories, and I don’t much like to be scared, to be honest. In short, I don’t read these kinds of books. But there is so much in your review, I may have to. FPPT can be very effective when used in the proper proportion–it works best as a condiment rather than a main course–and your comments on its use here are reason enough to have a look. So thanks, to both of you (LF, too).

    • Oh, I’ll need to talk you into crime somehow – though I’m losing touch with the way the genre is heading myself. But Zoran Drvenkar’s You is the best use of second person present tense I’ve ever come across! And for me horror has to be psychological – just can’t be doing with those mutant zombies, I fear. This one is fantastic – unlike a lot of horror it’s really well written, like du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. And I agree – FPPT can be a good thing sometimes. My objection to it has come about only because it’s being wildly over-used in crime novels (and some fiction) at the moment, often when it’s entirely inappropriate to how the story is being told. Whereas here Paver handles it beautifully and it adds to the pleasure. Enjoy!

    • Thank you! 😀 Brilliant book – I do love being scared when it’s done subtly and ambiguously! Haha! I have no idea how I’m going to get through the 20 plus all the books I’m supposed to be reviewing! No rest for the wicked…

  4. This sounds like one of those books I’d have to read in a crowded room, with lots of daylight around, FF!! Writers have such VIVID imaginations, you know, and some of us like to sleep at night, ha!

    • I must admit I had to stop reading a couple of times with this one – not anything horrible, just tension and anxiety! But it’s not so bad when you can check outside and be sure there’s no snow… and no anything else… 😮

  5. Well done Lady Fancifull for beginning to redeem yourself, this does sound very good indeed. I’m not usually one for the scary stuff simply because it doesn’t scare me so maybe I will try this on a dark winter’s night and see how I go 😉 Well done on the challenge FF off to a flying start!

    • I don’t normally find books scary either which is why I’m always searching. But psychological terror always works better for me than the vampire/zombie stuff, and this is pure psychological – brilliant even if you don’t scare easily ‘cos it’s so well done! But I wonder if you won’t have a wee shiver at the bit where… 😮

  6. Umm….yes, sign me up! Have I mentioned that I like cold books in the summer here. And the psychological terror thing, which might or might not be something? Running off to see if I can get this book. And thanks!!! From the bottom of my 90+ degrees outside heart.

    • Haha! Yes, we’re having what passes for a heatwave here too – that is, I haven’t had to put the heating on for two whole days! But this one is so cold I’m pretty sure I got frostbite…

      I love psychological terror and this was as good as Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson – so enjoy! (And don’t blame me if you can’t sleep!)

  7. I always like books set in an Arctic/Antarctic setting – all that cold and dark, so I might give this one a go, despite not being too keen on horror.

  8. That sounds terrifying and not for me, but I love your tense aversion – I must get that blog post written about weird aversions (I hate books that start with the protagonist dead and talking us through their life!).

    • Ooh, yes! Dead narrators drive me crazy! It’s funny how we all have different things that trigger our aversions. It always amazes me when other people actually seem to enjoy first person present tense!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  9. I also thought of Stephen King, particularly The Shining, which also featured a Jack in a ghostly situation.
    Wow. This book would probably scare me way more than a zombie or vampire book (neither of which has ever seemed particularly scary–except ‘Salem’s Lot, which I read when I was kid).

    • Oh, yes! I haven’t read The Shining but have seen the film – scary (though also quite funny)! But then I usually find films scarier than books, so this one must have been particulary terrifying to get to me. All done with psychology though – I never find vampires, zombies etc scary. They require too much suspension of disbelief, whereas things that might be there or might all be in the mind… *shivers*

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