Thoughts on “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO HAVE ANY FOREKNOWLEDGE OF THE CONTENTS OF THIS NOVEL, READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. 

Summary: January 1937. 28-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he’s offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. After they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year, Gruhuken, Jack feels a creeping unease.

I love books about the arctic.

It’s a bastion of cruelty set against a backdrop of incomprehensible beauty. It’s so hostile and isolated yet life miraculously persists in spite of it all.

I think that is what makes it the perfect landscape for a horror novel.

Not only are characters forced to contend with whatever supernatural entity is on their tail, the very land itself threatens their survival on a daily basis.

So how was it?

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I can’t pin-point precisely where the story lost me.

It started off strong, setting the scene and describing the hopelessness that would motivate someone like Jack to forgo all he knows to venture to no-mans-land.

Then it got dull real frigging quick.

I’m all for a slow-burning horror, but this book was a drudge to get through, which is quite an achievement when you consider it’s a meager 252 pages.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this novel’s greatest failing is its characters. Our supposed hero Jack in particular makes for a tedious protagonist.

Jack is supposed to be the underdog, the only lower-class citizen in a team of upper and middle-class scholars who do this sort of thing on a lark, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for him.

Jack is moody, whiny, and, frankly, he acts like a petulant child even though he’s nearly in his 30s.

“I’ve moved to my bunk because Algie is using his collapsible safari bath, and I’d rather not watch. All that wobbly, freckled flesh. His feet are the worst. They’re flat pink slabs, and the second, and third toes protrude way beyond the big toe, which I find repulsive. Gus saw me staring at them, and flushed. No doubt he’s embarrassed for his ‘best pal.’- 78 pg

70% of his narration in the first act is either devoted to giving tongue baths to Gus or berating Algie for even the slight infraction. Granted Algie is kind of a dick, but the way Jack carries on about him reminds me  too much of my high school days when girls started petty feuds with one another for no reason.

In fact, Jack’s whole demeanor is effeminate to the point of irritation. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s gay, or if the female writer struggles writing from a male perspectives.

Speaking of being gay, I thought things were going to get interesting after it became obvious that Jack was developing feelings for Gus. After all, this novel takes place prior to World War II when feelings like this were not only socially unacceptable but illegal as well. Would Gus reciprocate? Would he be disgusted? Considering they would have to live with one another for a year in confinement, this had the potential to brew some real drama. With no societal conventions to keep them apart in this world so detached from the rest of civilization, how would two Englishmen who truly love each other interact? Would their affections survive the harsh climate and high tensions of living in such an inhospitable part of the world?

Don’t worry.

These question are never answered.

Instead of developing the milk-toast character of Gus, the author gives him appendicitis so he and Algie are forced to leave the island.

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Yeah.

Really.

Bet you thought this would be one of those character-driven novels where people start off as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts but develop as the story progresses, didn’t you?

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No, instead we are held hostage by Jack for the remainder of the tale.

I admit he does become more sympathetic as the story progresses. At first he hated the canine companions they purchased for the trip, but he eventually grew to love them and appreciate them for the good-boys that they were. It’s hard to dislike someone who appreciates dogs for the amazing beings they are.

Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say Jack ever truly becomes “interesting.”  The writer had a chance with leaving him alone to delve deeper into his subconscious to see what makes him tick. Instead it’s mostly surface-level information and him making O-face over Gus.

I never felt a sense of urgency on Jack’s behalf either. In The Terror, the crew were constantly in peril, not only from the monster, but also food shortages and rampant illness. Other than been spooked, Jack is fine. Even though he is isolated, he has ample food and supplies to last him over a year. Hell, now that the rest of his expedition team is gone he actually has more. Why am I supposed to be scared again?

….Oh, yeah, there’s a ghost, I guess.

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Personally, I think the spirit’s story was over-explained. Nobody knew his name or his true origins but the fact that we have his motives explained to us kind of takes away from the dread. If they just left him as some vague, malevolent force that communicated through dreams and visions, he would have been more terrifying.

It could have been like a ghost story/mystery where Jack had to piece together what the ghost wanted and why it was there. Or better yet, it could be called into question whether or not what Jack was seeing was actually real or not. They addressed men go crazy in these parts of the world, so why not play with that?

Instead we’re spoon-fed the whole story by ye old trapper guy. It’s not even that unique of a story.

In the end, the ghost really didn’t do much anyway.

By the time he actually started raising cain, I lost interested and was reading purely for completion’s sake.

In the end, Gus dies like we knew he would due to an accident the ghost caused….somehow. I don’t know, it wasn’t explained very well.

Jack and Algie become friends after this tragic event because the story said they did, and the protagonist and his good-boy husky live some semblance of happily ever after.

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Part of me feels guilty for giving this book a poor review. After all this is Paver’s first novel for an adult audience, which might account for its lack of depth. Nevertheless, this book didn’t do anything for me. The plot had a lot of potential, it just didn’t reach it.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.