Archive for November, 2012

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’

Ten of us gathered around the fire at The Barrels Alehouse on a suitably chilly November evening to discuss ‘Dark Matter: a Ghost Story’ by Michelle Paver.

The book description tells us that it is: ‘January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight 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. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. 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 faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return – when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark…’

Most of us enjoyed the book.  Jill loved it.  She thought the characters were believable, the descriptions of the snow and the dark were convincing, and the tension built nicely.  She also loved the dogs.  New member Suzanne also enjoyed the book, but found Jack an irritatingly whiney character and was not convinced by the theme of class.  Paula was interested in the exploration of how a person copes with isolation, inhospitable surroundings and constant dark for weeks.  Rose, Anne and Josie also found it a page-turning if undemanding read.  Glynis was unconvinced by the ending and thought it felt engineered and tacked on.

Martin and Dave have both sent their thoughts.  Dave gives a qualified thumbs-up:

‘This book was an enjoyable read and held my attention well. I had some nitpicking pedantic points about the protagonist’s life in the 1930s. £3 was a decent salary, a UCL Physics graduate would have easily got an industrial job, the solitary life described seemed off the wall – compare with Orwell’s Coming up For Air and Keep the Aspidestra Flying set in the same period where people with smaller incomes had more of a life. Once they got on the ship things became more convincing and resonated with non-fiction accounts of expeditions and life in high North. I actually fond the Norwegian characters the most interesting – especially the trapper. The point about him being poor was particularly sharp – Spitzbergen as a wilderness was somewhere a poor man could have a life on his own terms but the poor devil who haunted the expedition site had not been allowed to have that life. Suspense relatively well maintained. Comparisons are odious and although I liked the book I thought the theme of evil in that world is better done in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf but I can see how the Dark matters as it were. So the reference to theoretical physics works very well as a title.  This issue of permanent night comes over in lots of real life accounts of polar winters. I was interested that such a boy’s book, no real female characters at all, appealed to the women members of the group and did feel that the female author can write men. Ann’s point in discussion about archetype fear of the dark as the time of the predator was very well made.’

Martin, on the other hand, gives a definite thumbs-down!

‘One of my pet hates is stories which rely on things which go bump in the night and being frightened of them just because they go bump.

I hoped a jolly little trip to Spitzbergen may have broken the mould. Rgretably we had the frightened captain and crew who refused to say why they were frightened, thereby saving the writer the bother of coming up with a reason. This was leavened with a truly obnoxious character who wanted to shoot or maim everything in sight and 3 little boys who would rather nanny left the nursery light on at night. (So why go to Spitzbergen?) Around page 100 or so Jack sees a vague wet shape come out of the sea, Even though he KNOWS there will be no trace of it’s passing he goes to look and “lo and behold” there is no trace but Jack KNOWS this is the mysterious thing only he saw earlier, after which I threw the book across the room and started another you have all recomended, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. (Apologies those those who dislike capitalisation for emphasis).’

As for me, I’m a sucker for ghost stories set in frozen wastes  (I also recently read and enjoyed The Terror by Dan Simmonds and Cold Earth by Sarah Moss) so I was looking forward to this, and Michelle Paver did not let me down. From the opening ‘teaser’ letter, giving dark hints of what happened on Gruhuken, I knew I was in safe hands and settled down for a good read.  I loved the repeating imagery of the ‘round, wet head’ throughout, from the moment when the drowned man is pulled from the Thames, to the truly horrifying reveal  – I’m saying no more! I expected – and got – impeccably researched evocations of 1930’s expeditions, and of life in the frozen North after the sun has tipped over the horizon for the last time for months (the ‘first dark’), but I was pleasantly surprised by the psychological ‘added extras.  Jack is of a different class to the others – and there is also an exploration of his ‘hero worship’ of, and love for, Gus, another expedition member.  The three men on Gruhuken are, to some extent, engineers of their own fate; the ghostly presence or dark matter is a very frightening fourth hand.

We ended with a fascinating discussion about ghost stories: the archetypes they represent, why they require suspension of disbelief, and why we need them.

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

November 2012
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