Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dark Matter

Dark Matter
by Michelle Paver

January, 1937. Twenty-eight-year-old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Five men and eight huskies, cross the Barents Sea from Norway by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He has to decide, stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, the point of no return-- when the sea will freeze. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Something walks there in the dark.

My Reaction:
It's a quick read and pretty effective as a ghost story.  I've felt a certain oppression or pall, over the last day or so, while reading it.  Now, whether or not that's a good thing may be open to debate-- but it is a ghost story, after all.

I found the setting interesting and well-written.  Even before reading the "author's note" at the end, it was obvious to me that she had done extensive research of the arctic.  (It turns out that she's even been there in person at least a couple of times!)  I appreciate the realistic details.  If an author cares enough about his/her writing to put in the effort of researching, I'm more confident that the work is worth the time I'll spend reading it.

Specific, Spoilery Comments:
--  At one point, Jack is embarrassed by his own explanation of the company that employs him.  (I guess he thinks he sounds... too middle-class? ...too proud of the company, even though he's obviously not?)  Anyway, he accuses himself of sounding like Mr. Pooter.  I got the reference because sometime in the past couple years, we read Diary of a Nobody.  It's pretty funny, if you haven't read it-- but P.G. Wodehouse is better. ;o)

--  Jack is not an especially likeable protagonist.  He's extremely sensitive about his social position and lack of money-- which, alright, those are big things, and were possibly even bigger in 1930s London.  But he goes on about them a little too much and for too long.  It gets annoying.  Similarly annoying is his strong dislike of Algie (from the very beginning) and his insistence that he won't grow to like the dogs.  Everyone who's read a book before knows very well that by the end of the book, he'll have changed his tune (about the dogs-- not Algie). 

--  "Public school".  It's strange that "public school" in England seems to mean (or to have meant?) just about the opposite of what it means here.  Well, maybe not the opposite, exactly, but a public school seems to be what we'd call a private school.  You pay to attend them-- and often, you live on campus.  So maybe "boarding school" would be our equivalent...

--  There's a fair amount of British period slang in here-- especially toward the beginning of the book.  It helps to be familiar with some of it.  I seem to read quite a bit of British literature set "between the wars", so I made it through. ;o)  Seriously, though, I think it's possibly my favorite literary setting, at the moment...

-- Evidently this author is known for writing for a YA audience, and some readers thought that this book made that obvious.  ...Maybe in some respects.  It was written in a fairly straight-forward, simple style-- but for a diary-format book, I think that's best.  Also, much of the book had little or no cursing.  To me, that seemed appropriate for an educated, scientific, rather straitlaced man (particularly in the 1930s).  In fact, I was a little shocked when he started dropping f-bombs, but it probably fit the situation.  The only other possibility I can think of is that they thought the horror was too mild.  It could have been more intense at times, but it was plenty creepy and almost the whole book had a spooky, dark atmosphere, so... I was satisfied.  But then again, I don't love gory details. 

-- When Jack records that they've brought a set of Royal Doulton china ("donated by Algie's mama"), I had to laugh a little.  Did it have hand-painted periwinkles on it?  We'll never know... Perhaps the biggest mystery in the whole book!

--  The author clearly has spent a little time with Scandinavians.  When the Norwegian captain answers in the affirmative ("Ja"), she writes that "he said it in the Scandinavian way, on an in-breath, which makes it sound oddly like a gasp".  Yep.  They do that.  I think Donald may have gotten out of the habit, though.  At least, I don't notice it these days...

--  She also has the Norwegians pronouncing "j"/hard "g" as a "y".  "Yentlemen".  "Mister Yack". (This idiosyncrasy feels somewhat more widely-known than the "gasping yes", but it still made me smile.)

--  "I don't know where the crew sleeps, or even how many there are, as I can't tell them apart.  They're all splendid Nordic types with formidable beards and amazingly clean overalls."  Really?  He's English and they're Norwegian, and he can't tell them apart?  ...There's not that much difference between the "look" of the two nationalities, and the Scandinavians I've seen haven't been that homogenous in appearance.  Sure, there are some common traits among some people, but there's plenty of variety in facial structure, hair and eye color, etc.  It struck me as odd that Jack would think they all looked the same.  (And it's funny that it's ok to say that about "Nordic types", while saying the same thing about... some other "types" would be considered racist.)

--  There seems to be a train of thought in much of my reading, lately...  Starting with the fish-frog-men/demons in Shadow Over Innsmouth... Then Wait for What Will Come, with talk of mermen and sea demons... and Roman mosaic of odd sea creatures... and the whatever-it-was-supposed-to-be with a seal-like head/hair...  And finally to this, with the arctic sea creatures and the frequent mention of seals... and the watery ghost.  The sea has been an important element in all three of my last completed reads.  It doesn't mean anything, of course, and maybe it's a stretch, but it caught my attention and was certainly not consciously planned. 

--  "Blood pancakes"?  That sounds disgusting.  Of course, I also think "blood pudding" sounds icky.  Basically, just don't feed me anything with the word "blood" in the name.  And I'd rather not know if I'm eating livers, hearts, brains, tongues, etc.  Just call it "beef", "pork", "chicken", or whatever.  That's enough info for me. 

--  "Scree".  New word!

-- There are several mentions of paraffin being stinky, and I realized that I have no idea what paraffin smells like.  I think paraffin is the same thing as kerosene, so I'm sure I've smelled it before, but I can't remember it... If it's a bad smell, maybe I should just be grateful I don't remember.  

--  Jack remembers his mother painting the steps leading to their house, to make them look white or grey.  "Thinking of that now, it's heartbreaking.  To spend your life painting stones."  ...What's so heartbreaking about it?  You think it's futile, I suppose.  A pathetic waste of time and energy.  Well, sadly, most of us spend much our lives in futile pursuits.  That's just what life is.  If it made her happy to paint her stones, to give them a tidy appearance, I don't find that heartbreaking, at all. 

--  "What I don't like is the feeling I sometimes get that other things might exist around us, of which we know nothing."  Yes.  And what about that feeling that what we think we see isn't really what's there at all? The idea that our surroundings look nothing like what we see; what we see is a lie, and everything's actually all dark and grimy and awful, instead... Yuck.

--  I read one review that wished we'd gotten more time with the three men together-- or at least felt that we needed it to feel that the relationships among them were "real".  I agree.  Particularly Jack's feelings for Gus.  It was pretty clear early on that Jack's feelings were too intense to be mere friendship or even hero-worship.  Possibly pre-teen girls could have that kind of attachment-- such a powerful, emotional bond of friendship-- but I don't think grown men usually do.  At least, they don't express it that way, and I'd only expect to see it between men who'd gone through something extraordinary together... Soldiers after sharing months or years as prisoners of war, for example... Anyway, the less said about it, the better.  One of the weaker aspects of the book, in my opinion.

--  "...a memorandum book bound in blue American cloth" --  I'd never heard of "American cloth".  It's a "sturdy enameled oilcloth". 

--  Of course.  Out of the whole book, the part that comes closest to choking me up is when Jack's talking to his dog, reassuring him, promising him they won't be parted again.  *wateryeyes*  Why does that always happen?!

--  Before reading this, I'd never been particularly scared by the thought of the long night of the arctic winter, but I'd never really spent much time thinking of it, period.  While reading, it started spooking me.  I even got a feeling for the lesser horror-- dread, maybe, is a better word-- of the very short days of winter in the far north.  No wonder Swedes are so enamored of summer and the sun...

Just thought of something else I should've mentioned...  Because it's necessary for this type of story, I feel almost silly for bringing it up, but gosh, Jack was stupid for staying!  In the beginning of the book, it's part of the build-up of tension and dread.  The reader of course knows that something terrible is going to happen, and we get to "enjoy" the foolhardy insistence of the young men that they will go to this specific place, even though others try repeatedly to change their minds.  When Jack first decides to stay behind, I guess you can still argue that he's making a reasonable choice.  At that point, he thinks it's just a harmless "echo" (if I recall correctly), and when we weigh the pros and the cons from his perspective, it's possible to understand his decision.  But then things get worse and he still refuses help.  He won't ask the others to send the boat to pick him up.  He won't accept his "neighbor's" generous offer of rescue.  I get that he almost has to be stupidly stubborn for the story to continue, but it's frustrating.  When he refused to go with the kindly trapper, I kind of washed my hands of him.  Whatever happens to him after that point, he pretty much has asked for.