Tuesday 9 November 2010

Michelle Paver, Dark Matter

Dark Matter leads us into a haunting, and haunted, Arctic winter.

Michelle Paver has just won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for the latest instalment in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series of Young Adult novels. Her latest novel - her first for adults - is called Dark Matter.

excerpt of cover image from Dark Matter

The Arctic, 1937, an endless polar season of constant darkness. This is the intriguing setting for Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver. Jack Miller is the ambitious protagonist, a promising physicist whose family’s poverty and bad luck force him to abandon his academic ambitions. He agrees to join a small expedition to the Arctic as a wireless operator and data recorder. His new colleagues are confident and privileged young men, among whom he feels a class-unease so intense that he marks every word of his own banter in case it belies his upbringing.

The callow, virtually novice crew travel to Norway and then across the ice-filled sea to the Arctic. They arrive at Gruhuken, a (fictional) part of Spitsbergen that has been explored, exploited and abandoned by successive groups of trappers, miners, whalers, sealers and scientists. They find a wooden hut full of previous residents’ rusted knives, behind a sinister looking wooden post – a bear post. They demolish the hut, build a new one and begin their Arctic existence. Then darkness falls. 

Paver is already a prolific and internationally bestselling author of novels for young adults, including the excellent Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Much of the power of her work there - and here - derives from her brilliant descriptions of landscape and nature. Her unsentimental respect for the grandeur of the elements is expressed in strong, bold, appreciative prose. She describes the sound of tiny bubbles popping in sheets of ice, “as if the ice is talking to itself”. Her sentences contain tremendous scale and space, as if each word is an easy mile-long stride into new territory: “As I write this,” notes Jack in his journal, “it’s nearly midnight and we’re still not through the ice. I can feel each turn the ship makes. The shudder of impact, the change in the engine as we reach a clear patch, the subdued roar as we push the smaller floes aside.” Further on, “a vast, tormented glacier spilled into the sea.” We feel every increase in Jack’s delight on the journey to Gruhuken: “It was eerie, peering through the fog at the sea turned white. Huge, jagged floes like pieces of an enormous jigsaw, dotted with pools of meltwater, intensely blue. …I leaned over the side and gazed down at the rocking, jostling shards.

When it comes to this majestic setting Paver misses nothing, belittles nothing, patronises nothing. She expresses the totality of the landscape with a miraculous lightness and confidence. Her research, travels and experience are all so ably corralled that her expertise bears the story effortlessly aloft. At the same time, however, the novel does not pander to readers’ gaping awe. The Arctic is a tough, living environment of animals – foxes, bears, birds, water creatures – and continually changing weather, sea and light.

When the small crew settle into their hut and begin their (doomed, oh, doomed!) stay in Gruhuken, Paver’s close observation and impeccable research bring their habits and tasks to life. We see the hut, Jack’s wireless equipment, the porch and boardwalk, the dogs’ enclosure and the bay and beach. I could have spent dozens of pages happily inhabiting these gentlemen explorers’ straw-stuffed winter boots, trudging around boulders, eating their provisions and soaking up the moon rays amidst the whalebones at the coast.

The drama that ensues is silly compared to the ardent seriousness with which Paver describes the everyday details of the men’s lives. Dark Matter is at its weakest where it ought to be at its most spectacular, despite its careful set-up. The crew members have nightmares and experience horrid intimations, dreaming of knives and violence, but do not tell each other. By various accidents and quirks of timing it is suggestible, hyperconscious, desperate-to-prove-himself Jack Miller who pledges to remain alone in the hut for several weeks of complete darkness.

Except that he is not alone. Gruhuken is haunted by the enraged spirit of an abject  man who was tortured to death by local trappers. This spirit takes the form of a black shape, an outline with “a round wet head” and “one shoulder higher than the other.” It lurks by the hut, inside and out, trudging, emanating hate and sending waves of dread through Jack, who grows steadily more crazed. Jack realises that he’s not a hero at all, but a dupe. The sailors and traders from the local area have always known Gruhuken was haunted. His crew ‘chums’ were desperate to leave. His desire to remain at the hut was an act of bravado which backfires horribly and destroys his life.

Dark Matter is an addictive study of the effects of darkness and isolation, a tribute to an incredible part of the word and a contemplation of the lives of many generations of visitors who have tried (with varying degrees of success) to survive there. One reads on, concerned for Jack’s welfare rather than intrigued by the tale of the tormented thing that stalks him. Paver’s descriptions of Jack’s increasing paranoia and feeble attempts to ward off his own fear are impeccable. But the spectre, the haunter, the zombie… whatever it is, to put it bluntly, it is not frightening. The care with which it is described, as a solid sodden shape with no features, is masterful. But the reader simply does not share Jack’s fear, and as there is no ambiguity about whether this is a real haunting or simply madness, that crucial shift from blissful ice escapade to nocturnal terror does not happen. Paver’s concision, so powerful and necessary everywhere else, means that the atmosphere of hauntedness, its nausea and mania, does not gain traction. The language plods thickly around the central mystery of the book as though it’s wearing ill-fitting snowshoes. Would-be chilling scenes are described with blunt economy. The tingle and flinch of real horror has been replaced by pedestrian prose.

Dark Matter is Paver’s first work of adult fiction. For all its intelligence, craft, clever structuring, beautiful writing, clarity and scale, it is too simplistic for adults. It is, instead, another utterly gripping and powerful work for the YA market – and on those terms, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Dark Matter is published on 21st October 2010 by Orion, priced £12.99