‘Up here a man becomes aware of things that he can’t perceive further south.’
I read most of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, but got bored after a while. The series started off great, but then they got a bit, well, ugh. I reckon that’s why it’s taken me a while to pick this one up. But fuck, I am so so so bloody glad I did pick it up, because it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. I fucking LOVED IT. It’s like Paver stepped into my head, gathered up all my desires for a story and stitched them together. Dark Matter is a ghost story set in the Arctic. (Right, that should have been enough for you to bookmark this blog post and set off on a hunt to find a copy. If not, that’s okay. Just do it immediately after you’ve finished reading this post.) For me, ‘ghost’ and ‘Arctic’ are the two magic words, enough to make my knees go weak and for my head to feel like it’s filled with popping candy.
Dark Matter is set in 1937 an the story revolves around our protagonist Jack Miller, a sad and lonely twenty something year old who wants to dramatically change his life. So, when he’s offered an opportunity to join an Arctic expedition, he leaps at the chance. Jack finds himself on a ship to Spitsbergen (Also known as Svalbard) and to a remote, uninhabited bay called Gruhuken, where he and his upper class companions are to spend the year. When they reach the bay, circumstances mean that one by one, the other men abandon him and the project, until he is left alone with eight huskies and a rapidly arriving polar winter, when the sea will ice up and the sun will disappear. But there is someone else at the bay, someone who walks in the dark.
The story is narrated in first person (I really enjoy this way of telling a story, and I love writing in the first person too) through Jack’s diary. Paver’s descriptions of the Arctic landscape are impeccable. Her ability to build atmosphere to the point where you are scrunching up your toes, and dipping further under the bedcovers is absolutely exceptional. This novel terrified me. The fact I suffer from mental health problems meant this touched me in a way not everyone can experience. I felt Jack’s loneliness. I felt his fear. I felt his growing desperation for human contact. Fortunately, Jack befriends one of the huskies, and there are some really tender moments which worked to strengthen my love for these amazing animals. There are multiple times where Jack has these poignant moments of realisation. For example, as he’s standing next to a bear post which used to be used by hunters.
And yet, I think I now understand the impulse which drives men to shoot bears. It isn’t for the pelt or the meat or the sport – or not only these things. I think they need to do it. They need to kill that great Arctic totem to give them some sense of control over the wilderness – even if that is only an illusion.
There’s another moment when Jack and one of his fellow expedition member’s are watching the Northern Lights.
With his heel, he hacked at the snow. “I read somewhere that the Eskimos believe they’re the torches of the dead, lighting the way for the living.” He hesitated. “They say if you whistle, the souls of the dead will draw nearer.”
There’s also a gorgeous moment when Jack is talking about the dogs.
My God, what would I do without them? They’re the liveliest, most affectionate creatures. I love the sound of their paws pattering over the snow as they hurtle off to investigate things, then hurtle back to tell me about it.
Midway through the story, Jack gets unexpected company from a Norwegian hunter, who is wintering a few days walk away from Gruhuken. I really enjoyed their exchanges and the smattering of Norwegian words, and at moments the pronunciation made me smile fondly.
“Nej, nej, Mister Yack, this is not pack ice! That comes in Januar, and you will know it, you will see the islyning, the ice blink, when it throw the light in the sky. This is just drift ice from the storm. Very danger, you stay off it Mister Yack. But don’t worry, soon the wind change and the ice is clear.”
I’m going to end with this extract. It chilled me to the bone. I love it. Jack’s Norwegian guest has left, and Jack is alone with the dogs again.
The moon has waned. It’s just a slit in the sky. The dark is back. Once, I thought fear of the dark was the oldest fear of all. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s not the dark the people fear, but what comes in the dark. What exists in it.