It is one of those rare occasions where I find the motivation to write about something other than music. And yes, this means another book review.
I recently finished a book that I have wanted to read for approximately nine years. Why the hell would I wait nine years to read it? Because I constantly kept making “accidental” book purchases and to be fair the book in question was extremely hard to find so I kept postponing it.
Now that I finally devoured it in the span of a few days I think it is time to discuss it. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is the author’s debut in the adult novel field and her first-ever ghost story which proved to be worth the attention and time despite the several negative points I found for myself.
Dark Matter follows the story of a 1937 expedition in the Arctic island Gruhuken. Five men and eight dogs are set to spend a year on the island collecting data on the climate and environment. Despite the many setbacks and suspicious reluctance people show towards this place the group finally makes it there. However, Jack Miller, the self-proclaimed outcast in the group soon finds himself alone in the gradually darkening Arctic. He starts experiencing strange phenomena and his mind suffers the effects of complete isolation and primal fear of the unknown. Maybe he is not as alone as he thinks after all.
I had set my eyes on Dark Matter ever since I saw the news of my favourite childhood author entering the adult novel field. Wolf Brother – the first book in Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series was my first children’s novel and quite honestly the book that ignited my passion for reading.
Even back then I was impressed with the author’s incredible ability to bring different worlds to life with the use of meticulous details from certain time periods and animal behaviour patterns .
The first thing to point out is that the book is written in the form of Jack Miller’s (the protagonist) journal. This in itself is a good start as it sets the foundation of the immersive storytelling and helps invoke empathy during the course of the book. However, the format is just one part of the things that make up for the haunting realism and bone-chilling empathy.
The setting of most of the book is quite specific and for it to work readers need to be able to feel what the characters feel. This effect is achieved thanks to the incredible attention to detail which brings readers to the world of the story.
I have to point out Paver’s effort for making the narrative as real as possible. She did extensive research on the Arctic scenery, environment, and wildlife which also included spending a lot of time on the location and studying journals of an actual expedition that took place in the 1930s to get a better idea of the details around such a task.
I think she managed to do a great job in representing the situation accurately and invoking the feeling of growing terror and desperation in readers even though I am sure we can only get a vague idea of what it is like to face the endless darkness and complete isolation of the Arctic.
Facts and Fiction / Meeting the paranormal
Dark Matter combines facts and fiction in a very powerful way. A large part of the story deals with the paranormal and it is hard to draw the line between fiction and plausible reality. Nevertheless, there is a lot of realism added by the explored theories, the believable circumstances, real-life setting, and the confusing mind-games making up for a thrilling reading experience.
Another great part of the book was the exploration of different subjects that were still somehow related to each other. Paver drew inspiration from a real expedition happening in 1937 and everything in the story was constructed following this time period and circumstances. This includes a lot of small but important hints about the approach of World War II, class differences in England at this time, as well as the belief and value systems of the people.
Also, as a person living in Scandinavia I cannot ignore the fact Michelle Paver illustrated some of the peculiarities of the native people to perfection. It adds a nice touch of realism and a note of humour.
Story and characters
The storyline itself is not anything extraordinary – it is exactly what you would expect from a classic ghost story. Simple yet effective – it is actually quite interesting to follow and the amount of suspense contributes to finding the motivation to keep reading.
Intense development is a fact even though I have to admit I found the story moving way too slow and having plenty of uneventful chapters which made getting to the real deal a struggle.
Characters and their drastic change after the events at the haunted camp were also an interesting point for me. We are mostly focused on Jack Miller as the main acting figure but all characters who make an appearance have clearly established values and personalities. The changes most of them undergo and the unveiling of different reasons for their actions add up to the thrill of the read.
As mentioned, the development was way too slow at some points and even though this contributed to the build-up of suspense I found it really frustrating and mostly unnecessary.
During the whole reading experience, I constantly thought there is something missing – more clarification about the whole mystery around Gruhuken and the background of what happened there. It is true the events that caused the haunting were vaguely explained but I think depth and elaboration would have made the whole story much better.
The feeling of vagueness does not create a suspenseful or mysterious effect, in fact, it seems like Paver didn’t have time or an idea about a proper backstory.
Furthermore, the start of the book promised a devastating development leaving the main character on the brink of madness. The image of Jack Miller after the events at Gruhuken which opened the narrative did not match the one from the epilogue chapter and I consider this a big letdown and major mistake.
Dark Matter is one of the few horror novels I picked up which is not a Stephen King work. Based on my previous encounters with Paver I had very high expectations for this particular book.
I can’t say I am disappointed – the book is a great read with engaging story and interesting characters on a strong horror level (most of the times). It does heavily rely on suspense and even though I enjoyed it a lot, several things were missing to make it a great book instead of a simply good one.
I found getting to the climax mildly annoying due to the slow development and unnecessary dragging of the story. This affected my satisfaction but the many good points and the meticulous attention to detail balanced the scales – the book needed just a little more to unveil its true potential.
“A tale of terror and beauty” is a good way to describe it – Paver emphasizes the wonders of the Arctic and goes on to show us that beauty can be terrifying depending on the circumstances.
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