Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review by Sophie Long of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter

Having never actually read a contemporary ghost story, I wondered whether people’s assertions that ‘books are scarier than films’ was in fact true. In a world where graphic, explicit scenes of violence in video games and films are commonplace, I thought perhaps it would be far more difficult for a book to elicit that same chill using only words.

I could not in fact, have been more wrong, although it would take me a while to discover it when reading Dark Matter. I found protagonist Jack’s neuroticism fairly irritating at the start. Other reviewers have supposed that his preoccupations with class and general tendency towards depression are important as the book moves on and becomes darker. In the beginning though, these traits are not particularly well explained, nor are they rooted in concrete relationships or events. In many ways, it seems as though Michelle Paver is merely trying to tick all of the ‘sad loner’ boxes – no family, no friends, dead end job, depressed....

As the narrative moves on from London into the North and eventually to Gruhuken, these niggling matters melt away as they do (much later) for Jack. Paver’s descriptions are just right, being only sentences here and there evoking shapes and colours as opposed to long-winded paragraphs. There is a definite monochrome palette running throughout the story, which makes phenomena such as the Northern Lights stand out, and the disappearance of the twilight is almost as unnerving for the reader as it is for Jack.

It is when the reader joins in his frequent swings between terror and rationality that Jack’s psychological profile comes into its own. Paver is able to make the slow, encroaching footsteps of the ghostly trapper echo in readers' minds as much as they do in Jack’s. The storyline of this ghostly presence is woven into the fabric of Jack’s everyday life: much as Jack does, the reader goes through periods of believing the ghost is real and then suddenly the real world will intrude in the form of Algie or Gus on the wireless, and for a time it appears that everything is alright.

By the end of the novel, with footsteps pounding around the hut, Jack’s terrified realisation that the ghost is able to enter the hut is as chilling for the reader as it must be for Jack. Another reviewer mentioned that at this point she became afraid to look out of the windows of her own house, and this particular feeling of jumpy paranoia also afflicted me as I read on to the end.

Given that the prickly, unsettled feeling this book gave me lingered for an entire weekend, I must say that this book is by far scarier than any film. I was not just a voyeur, instead I was forced into feeling and experiencing everything as Jack does, as my mind created a picture of Paver’s perpetually dark Arctic winter.

Perhaps I’m just a little bit wimpish, but I dare you to try it for yourself.

Sophie Long is an online contributor and until recently was an intern at New Welsh Review.

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