Book club: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

If you’ve never read a ghost story, or have been extremely sceptical about this genre then this is the novel for you. Its not a bump-in-the-night, jump-out-of-your-skin kind of ghost story, but rather a chill that slowly creeps over your skin with every page turn. A blend of Nordic folklore with hints of Greek mythology, Dark Matter is a powerful spine-tingling thriller that put me on the edge of my seat.

The plot

Set in the late 30’s, working-class Jack jumps at the chance of escaping a pre-war Britain and can’t believe his luck when he is invited to participate in an Arctic research expedition as a wireless operator. The ill-fated group set out for Gruhuken, a fictitious snow-bound island in the vicinity of Svalbard, Norway with a team of huskys, crates of equipment and hope.

Despite the disguised warnings and with the beginnings of trepidation in the air, the group start to realise that all is not as it seems in the Arctic. Daylight becomes a thing of the past and the endless nights starts to increase the groups’ uneasiness. Jack sees a figure by the hut, but quickly dismisses it until he is out taking readings later one afternoon. I felt the skin on the back of my neck prick when I realised that Jack suspects he is not alone; a scraping, a dragging echoing around the Arctic waste. A wet head rises from the water. Intent. Dread. Jack makes a break for it back to the hut. Did he actually see it? Is it real or a trick of the light, or, worse, a trick of his mind?

Before long, Jack is alone as the other characters leave for the mainland. Staying in a routine Jack tries to keep the horrors of his mind at bay. But it nags at him. The isolation of the bleak Arctic stillness permeating every pore. A thud. Is the bear pole moving? The creeping dread. And again the figure, malevolence radiating out from it. Ghosts can’t open doors, can they?

As Jack’s paranoia climbs to new heights, he realises the figure is in the room with him. Stumbling around he tries to get outside, to get away from it. He forgets his boots and before long realises his fate: he will die in the Arctic wilderness. Whether from the figure or the extreme conditions, Jack will not last long…

Jack

Jack is not a particularly likeable character. Paver’s style of writing in the first half of the book made me feel as though I was running through the story, from the meeting in London to arriving at Gruhuken the short sentences did not help to build up Jack’s personality. If anything, it emphasised his bitterness and short temperament, despite other characters commenting on his visibly calm facade at times.

But whilst I did not feel that Jack himself was endearing, his declining mental state was excellently portrayed by Paver. The worry and anxiety in the face of being alone on Gruhuken for the rest of the winter, Jack tries to keep in a routine but seemingly cannot hide his fear from those he communicates with. His fall into dispair, without being able to recognise it himself, and his hopelessness is resounding. His downward spiral stalled only by his new-found love of Isaak, one of the huskys whom he previously despised, really helped the reader understand the true sense of Jack’s loneliness and his need for some sort of interaction.

Gruhuken

Paver created Gruhuken from her memories of travelling around Spitsbergen and, I must say, that does give me some relief! Knowing that the figure dwells in a fictional place does help me to sleep at night to say the least.

Paver is brilliant at setting the scene; her description of the lessening daylight, the stillness and never-ending wastelands of the Arctic archipelago are so life like I felt as though I was suffering through the same ordeal myself. The words Paver uses really installed a wariness in me; his cabin little bigger than a coffin, all helping to create an intense atmosphere.

Like adverts and films, most novels have an abundance of dialogue. You notice if one ad is silent and moody. Dark Matter is no different. The novel is written in a journalistic style with the reader only having access to Jack’s thoughts; the plot centred around his observations and anxieties with little conversation helping to aid the story along. Its not a style I usually enjoy, but the descriptions and depictions of the Arctic wilderness and one man’s impending sense of doom make this book un-put-downable.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And if you have any recommendations of other ghost stories I could try, do let me know!

Book club: The Lake House by Kate Morton

A novel is an insight into an author’s world, or how they perceive it to be. No matter what the story, the intimacy of reading someone else’s words on a page gives you an understanding of them as a person. Most writers agree that they leave parts of themselves in each novel; your experiences are all you have to draw from after all, topped up with research.

But I’ve become stuck in a bit of a same-old author rut and didn’t know what to do. I felt I knew what was coming from the first chapter, and rarely was I wrong. I love a good story, but I wanted to shake it up a bit. And so I thought what better to way to encourage myself to read more widely than if I post about my reads and take inspiration from others – even if it is a book I would usually steer away from in the store.

So this is what lead me to The Lake House by Kate Morton.

The plot: a summary

The Lake House is a beautifully crafted book. It is the tale of a tragic incident that occurred in the early 30’s in Cornwall and which has haunted each of the family members involved for the following 70 years. It brings together a modern-day policewoman, Sadie, who in trying to escape from her own wrong-doing, visits her grandfather and stumbles across a majestic yet run-down house in the Cornish countryside. Her inquisitiveness leads her on a search for the truth in order to solve a crime that happened well before her own birth.

In the 30’s, the youngest member of the Edevane family was found missing. A toddler, last seen sleeping in his nursery whilst his parents hosted a party, was nowhere to be found. Presumed missing, taken or dead, each of Theo’s siblings held their own guilt and slice of knowledge as to what happened to him for the remainder of their lives.

The story primarily centres around Sadie and one of Theo’s siblings, Alice, who is now well into her 80s and a renowned writer herself. The novel jumps through time, from the 30’s to the present day with the reader gaining an understanding of the circumstances surrounding Theo’s disappearance from the perspectives of Alice, her mother and at one point her grandmother, with present-day Sadie tying it all together.

The switches between modern-day Sadie and the events of the 30’s helped me to gain an insight into not only the characters’ understanding of the circumstances surrounding the incident, but their own personal development. I found it far from confusing and more of a guide, helping me to come to my own conclusions with each plot twist, rather than being fed the story and feeling like an outsider, an observer.

Themes

The novel is largely the story of two crimes woven together within the Gothic mystery genre. Love is what holds this novel together and brings it to life; unbreakable family bonds showing the lengths a person will go to to protect their nearest and dearest.

Although the story centres around Sadie and Alice, it is Alice’s mother, Eleanor, who really stands out and makes this story real. In each of the recollections you see Eleanor in a different light and how she has changed as she gets older. As a young adult she feels stifled by her mother’s strict expectations of her and the need to please those around her. As she grows up, her love for her husband Anthony and the joy of motherhood is ever-present, but with it the understanding that she is now Mother, not just Eleanor. She had duties and responsibilities, but is she at risk of nearly becoming like the very thing she despised most: her own mother? Morton adeptly contrasts the adult Eleanor with the softer, girl-ish side to her and her desire to love and be loved. Eleanor is the rock of the family, the cord that binds them together and makes them a unit. Eleanor is, truly, the heroine of this novel.

Morton is able to portray Alice’s stubborn, selfish but other-worldliness as a teenager and show how she has matured into an adult, still carrying those traits but with a newfound understanding of life and the reason why people make certain decisions. She is set in her ways, focused and deliberate in each of her actions. Misunderstood as a teenager, perhaps, but her misunderstanding of the situation surrounding Theo’s disappearance is heartening; her friendship with the gardener confused with courtship and love, and her shame at being rejected resonating with her into later life.

Sadie is not a strong character, despite her central place in the novel. Her ‘wrong-doing’ is not such a life-changing event as the reader is initially lead to believe and she lacks in personality. Her sole purpose is to tell the story, rather than to seemingly be a part of it. I lacked any connection or empathy with Sadie, finding her rather bland. But perhaps that was the purpose. She was the narrator, and it could be quite easy for the reader to be side-tracked from the main story if Sadie also had her own life-story.

The most riveting aspect of the book by far was the author’s attention to detail, particularly when describing events and emotions from the 30’s. Alice’s observations about her siblings and mother; her button-down top and pearls and the lines around her eyes; the longing to be out by the lake, the dryness and grittiness of the summer heat bearing down on her really bring the characters to life and give them depth. Morton is able to give the reader a real flavour of what life was like for the middle classes back then, from fashion to behaviour and society’s staunch, conventional expectations.

But if you take a step back from The Lake House, cracks start to appear.

There are several incidents in this novel that are unnecessary and, frankly, unbelievable (alert: potential for spoilers!)

  • The death of Eleanor’s mentor and family-friend. The reader is lead to believe that this could be suicide, but it is largely unexplored until the reader comes to Alice’s grandmother’s only recollection. The mentor had lived with the family for several decades and it seems entirely unbelievable that he would be murdered. Morton clearly chose to kill him off to try and divert the reader, but the red-herring was so glaringly obvious from the get-go it would have been disappointing if the mentor had had anything to do with Theo’s disappearance in the end.
  • The ending. Whilst it was comforting for Theo to not only be found alive, but for the reader to know that Eleanor knew he was safe before her untimely death, it was just too twee for Theo to turn out to be Sadie’s grandfather. Of the hundreds and thousands of people who moved to and lived in London then, is it plausible that the two ‘investigators’, Sadie and Alice, would be linked biologically? I’d say not.
  • Anthony’s shell-shock was well-researched by Morton, but introduced too late into the book and then dropped far too suddenly. I have read several fictional accounts about the effect of shell-shock on those who fought in the First World War (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong being by far the most moving), and whilst Morton adequately explained the effects of it, it was a very shallow depiction and, I felt, tip-toed around the subject. Morton needed to explore it more in order for the reader to give it proper weight and consider whether it was viable for Anthony to have had involvement in Theo’s disappearance.

However, The Lake House is definitely one to read. It is a page-turner in its entirety and whilst I do have some criticisms of it, overall it is brilliantly executed and made me want to stay up late into the night to find out what was going to happen next. Many authors are able to depict a scene, an event, and add some emotion to it, but the human aspect of The Lake House is enthralling. Morton is excellent at portraying a character as a person; weaving in character traits, observations and personality into them so that they are all but real.

I had not come across Morton prior to The Lake House being recommended to me, but I will definitely be reading more of her works in the future.

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Whilst writing this I treated myself to a gorgeous cup of Black Rose tea in my new tea pot. I’ve had quite a stressful and tiring week so this pick-me-up was much needed.

Book club: The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Darkness started to fall and the street lamps flickered on, casting a warm hue over the damp cobbles. The smell of rain lingering in the air, mixing with hints of mulled wine and cinnamon. I walked through the door and felt the heat hit me, my bobble hat and scarf off in an instant. I started roaming the aisles and was drawn to a particular cover and title on the top shelf, just in reach of my lanky, bony teenage arms.

This is my first memory of going book shopping as a teenager. I can remember it vividly. I was out shopping in Norwich just before Christmas, with the early nights drawing in. I had stepped into my favourite bookstore – back before Ottakar’s was taken over by Waterstones. My dad would sit upstairs in the coffee shop – before it too was taken over by Costa Coffee(!) and enjoy a latte whilst reading a book. That was the beauty of Ottakar’s. You could enjoy a novel over a cuppa before you bought it – nobody was sat there worrying about spilling coffee on the pages.

The book was in the main section of the store on the top shelf, in the area where both well-known and up-and-coming authors are displayed. It had a simple cover, but I was drawn to it. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. This was years before the film with Cameron Diaz and before Jodi Picoult was really famous. I remember being intrigued by the story – full of conflict whilst all the while dealing with a deeply moral issue. I’ve ready many books covering everything from a standard murder thriller to those about troubling issues like domestic violence and abuse. I recall reading Danielle Steele’s The Long Road Home at the age of 11 which, with hindsight, probably wasn’t appropriate. That remains one of my favourite books to date though.

So I thought it was only fitting for my first review to be a Jodi Picoult novel. Its one I initially read over 10 years ago and lent to a friend, but I never got it back. Recently I felt the urge to read it again so downloaded it on my kindle. It brought back memories of kicking back on my multi-coloured bedspread as a college student, reading late into the night until my eyes strained. The plot I could associate my teenage self with; a bit of angst and the apprehension of approaching adulthood.

The Pact

A no-nonsense title that explains exactly what this book is about. Set in North America on the Eastern Coast, two teenagers are raised from birth by parents who are best friends. The story focuses on their bond, developing from friendship to love and the pressure of trying to meet their parents’, their own, and most importantly the other’s ideal of ‘perfection’. From the beginning the reader is aware that the young girl has died, a supposed suicide pact. The story then weaves through time, bringing together the two sides of the story. The flip side of the same coin. The story is primarily told from the boyfriend’s viewpoint, Chris, who is standing trial for murder. Occasionally there is the the odd recollection from the girlfriend, Emily, but this is more for explanatory reasons to help further the plot. Without Emily’s occasional input the reader would be unaware of the reason behind her desire to die; the mis-conception that having been abused as a child would make her dirty and unsuitable as a girlfriend or future wife.

Picoult’s notorious writing style – switching back and forth between then and now – really makes this story come alive. Whilst subconsciously leading the reader to question the lovers’ devotion to each other throughout, the characters tell a different story – portraying Chris and Emily’s relationship as one of closeness, desire and inevitability. A natural progression from childhood, but perhaps unwanted. And that is one of my major bug-bears about this novel.

The few, infrequent passages from Emily do not go far enough to give her depth as a character. The reader views Emily as a delicate flower, beautiful and brilliant but introverted. She is a typical teenager in many senses; worried about schoolwork and wanting to see her boyfriend as much as possible. But her dark secret is not explored; in fact, it is almost minimised. The abuse is introduced so late into the book and skirted over so quickly – perhaps that is Picoult demonstrating how a victim of abuse may recollect it, by wanting to get it out of their head as soon as possible – that it does not do the story justice. Emily doesn’t feed on the abuse; it is not all-consuming of her and the sudden desire to kill herself seems to take a large leap from the abuse 8 years prior. There is but the odd sentence of Emily reviewing her abuse, but far more about how she viewed her relationship with Chris as platonic, relishing the closeness but deeply anxious about the sexual encounters that are a natural part of any adult relationship.

Emily’s desire to die is the crux of the story, but her reason is completely unknown to the other characters. In the absence of any emotional exploration of the abuse, the reader is left to feel like Emily is selfish, focusing on her own wants and not thinking about the effect her actions have on other people, most notably Chris and her parents.

Chris is far more reliable and believable as a character. I felt as a female reader that I connected with him far more than Emily. His routine and teenage musings were normal and mundane and he struggled to deal with the expectations of his strict father. His life, like many other young adults, was unremarkable in many ways. Except his deep insatiable love for Emily, which in my humble opinion, has been confused with lust.

The mothers of Emily and Chris take the next two starring roles, and they are as alike as they are different. Chris’ mother is like the wind; she has an appetite for life that rolls through the story combining passion with motherhood and the desire to do right by her son. Her early recollections of Chris and Emily during their childhood are the building blocks for the reader; understanding how the characters are so entwined and the inseparable lives they have led. Emily’s mother, Melanie, is quiet and subdued, an anxious speck of a woman in my mind. Whilst Picoult demonstrates the grief Melanie would understandably be feeling at the death of a daughter, it is viewed from a third person, a stranger looking in, detached. Her actions in the months following Emily’s death are somewhat textbook, but neither her sadness nor her anger are given the weight they deserve. I can only recall feeling true empathy for Melanie when Picolut depicts her visting her daughter’s grave on Christmas Day, saying it is Emily’s ‘first Christmas away from home’, as if she had gone to universtiy and would be coming home one day.

The emotion that this story stirs within a reader is quite one-sided. You are rooting for Chris from the outset, hoping against hope that he will be found not-guilty whilst all along suspecting that, if you were a member of the jury, you would probably find him guilty as charged. I found myself sympathising with Chris, even though a couple of things he said and did to Emily I would not have tolerated myself. Its that balance to his character that gives him depth; after all, we are all capable of doing good and bad things.

This tale is not one of forbidden love, but expected love. Expected by the parents, but also by Chris. Picoult explores love from many angles. She winds around the passion and familiarity Chris’ parents feel for each other and contrasts it with the restrained but restless love Emily’s parents have. Both sets of parents exude a protectiveness over Chris and Emily that is admirable and raw. I felt myself smile when the parents first became aware that Chris and Emily had shared a kiss as young teenagers; you could feel their joy in thinking that the families would be inextricably linked in the future by marriage, what they had hoped from day 1. In my view, it is the parents’ overwhelming love for their child that the reader benefits from most. The lengths the parents will go to, in their own ways, to do what is right by their child, no matter what.

Picoult is an expert at tackling controversial issues, such as teen suicide. She thoroughly researches the subject matter, the investigatory procedure and the legal process in a lot of detail and meets with various other professionals to bring the story together and give it life. However, whilst well researched according to the appendices, I do not consider the emotional aspect has been sufficiently addressed as what the story makes for in a good read, it lacks in the emotional make-up from very key characters. Both Emily and Melanie could be more developed, they are, after all, the ones facing the emotional uncertainty. The story is written from Chris’ point of view, as the victim of a wrongful accusation. But it is Emily who has suffered and Emily who is dead. Her family are the ones who would be living with that loss for the rest of their lives, whilst Chris could move on. It feels distinctly flat in that sense, uncharted territory that is in desperate need of being scouted out.

The novel is undoubtedly built around the concept of Love in all of its different forms. Yet there is one other lingering feeling; it pulls the reader through the novel, sitting in your subconscious until you acknowledge it like an old friend when you eventually turn the last page. Fate. Of all the characters in the book, none are in control of their lives. And the more, perhaps surprising, realisation is that Picoult seems to promote this within her work. Her choice of words infuse the characters with spontaneity yet acceptance of what is happening to them. Sure, the story needs to be told, but there is no open challenging of the situation each character finds themselves in; no struggle nor conflict within themselves.

About

Suicide is the cause of 0.1% of all deaths in the UK (as at 2015), with female suicide rates at the highest in a decade. Yet the suicide rate for males is 3 times higher than for females, with the age group 44-59 having the highest rate. The suicide rate for under 30 year olds remains the lowest, but is gradually increasing over the years. Unfortunately, the ONS does not break the age groups down into those pre-adult hood, but it is widely acknowledged that teen suicide is an increasing problem.

If you know someone who you think may be suicidal, encourage them to speak to the Samaritans and seek as much help as possible.