Michelle Paver

Orion Books (2010)

ISBN: 9781409123798

Reviewed by Tehani Wessely

In the years before World War II, Jack Miller is working for subsistence wage in a job he is over qualified and too intelligent for. He yearns for something more, a way to escape the reduced circumstances he is in because of the early deaths of his mother and father. He feels he has done all he can to claw out of the working class, but cannot see a way to go any further forward. Until an opportunity to travel to the Arctic with a group of upper class young men who need a wireless operator, to study the weather of the region, arises. Despite misgivings about his station is life as opposed to that of his would-be colleagues, Jack takes up the challenge, seeing it as perhaps his only opportunity to rise out of poverty. What follows is a grim and eerie journey that takes a very different path to that he might have expected.

Dark Matter is Paver’s first foray into adult fiction, after the success of her highly acclaimed Chronicle of Darkness series for children. Interestingly, I would suggest Dark Matter could fit quite nicely in the upper end of the Young Adult spectrum, given the naivety of the central character and his journey to understanding of self, and the world around him. While he is purportedly twenty-eight in the story, there is no real evidence of his age in the book, other than mention of how long he has been working in the job he hates. He has no family, no love interest, no trappings of adulthood – Jack’s journey could equally have been that of a late teen or university leaver, and there’s no content in the story itself that would preclude it from being suitable for a younger audience.

I need to comment on the way Paver very successfully used the isolation of the Arctic landscape as a character of the book. The descriptions of the ice, the cold, the wind, the extended days, and then the long nights, all added to the atmosphere of the story. Jack’s loneliness when his companions have all gone is palpable, and exacerbated by the desolate setting to the point where the reader is right there with him when he experiences the terror of the “echo” he sees.

The book was not perfectly executed – while I understood the reason for the journal entry format of writing, I don’t think it was as successful as it could have been, with some of the entries not ringing true as the way the character would have been recording them. However, I did enjoy the interesting drawing of Jack’s relationship with fellow expedition member Gus; in fact, all the relationships were very well done, with the evolution and change of these ringing very true, even that of Jack and the husky dog Isaak. The characters are a real strength of the book.

Was it scary? Well, sort of. It was suspenseful but again, I think the journal entry style let it down here – it’s hard to have immediacy of terror when everything is being written down after the fact. But the book is darkly atmospheric, quite suspenseful, and definitely well put together, if not actually all that frightening. I recommend it!