Warning: This review might be a bit spoilerish although I've tried hard not to make it too much so.
Jack Miller is down on his luck. He has a dead-end job even though he struggled to get a physics degree back in the 1930s when someone from a poorish background like his rarely managed such an achievement. Almost at the end of his tether he answers an advert to join an expedition to the Arctic as the radio expert. He almost doesn't accept the offer. Meeting the five other members he finds they are from upper-class backgrounds and feels they are looking down on him. As he leaves he hears a comment to that effect and knows it for sure. Coming to his senses though, he realises that he would be missing a rare opportunity and basically has nothing to lose.
The five members end up as three when accidents befall two of the men. Jack is accompanied by Gus, a good looking young man, very much a leader of men, and Algie, plump and irritating. Jack takes to Gus but not to Algie.
They reach Norway and the three are tranported from Tromso to the island of Spitsbergen where they will spend the Arctic winter. They've picked a part of the island known as Gruhuken, an old mining area now deserted. But there's a problem. The captain of the ship transporting them, Eriksson, is not at all keen to take them to the spot they've chosen. When Jack tries to find out what the captain has against Gruhuken the man is tight-lipped: it's clear he's very much afraid of something but refuses to say what.
Eventually they reach the cove and set about making a camp. The crew stay to help but will not sleep ashore at night. In order to build a hut they have to demolish a hut built by the miners, which is not habitable, partly because of the terrible atmosphere there. And there's a strange post outside the hut known as the 'bear post' which is giving everyone the creeps.
The ship is about to leave and Jack, on his way back from a walk, sees the figure of a man standing beside the post, his head at a strange angle to his body. It was nobody that he knew. The ship leaves and the three men settle into a routine but something is not right. Jack is seeing and feeling strange things but feels he can't tell the others for fear of being ridiculed. Then Gus takes ill with apendicitis. Erikssen's ship returns and takes both Gus and Algie away, leaving Jack on his own with the winter darkness about to descend...
Well, this is a ghost story in the true sense of the word. It's told in journal fashion, a method which to me has a very Victorian feel to it, even though the story is set in 1937 with WW2 looming. The tension builds slowly. Even though there are small problems right from the start and the reader cannot help but feel the mission is doomed, you get carried away by the excitement the men so clearly feel, setting out, and are hoping for the best even though you just *know* it'll all end badly.
This is a genuinely creepy story. Not just the ghostly aspect which is well done and very effective, but more so because we watch the slow deterioration of a man's mind. It's impossible for anyone who hasn't done it to imagine how it must feel to be left completely alone in an Arctic winter. No daylight whatsoever to look forward to for four long months- no company, no one to speak to. Impossible *not* to go a bit potty, even in normal circumstances, let alone in a place that gives you the creeps. And this is all beautifully depicted by the author in this slow build-up to the devastating climax of the book.
I gather the author, Michelle Paver, has a fascination with Arctic wastes and has actually been to Northern Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Spitsbergen itself. This shows. To the point of the island feeling like a fourth character... the descriptions are so fantastic - the bleakness, the desolation, the stark beauty - you are actually *there*. I too am a bit taken with these regions so this was a massive plus for me and I adored this aspect of the book.
I wish there were more books written like this - more genuine ghost stories. Susan Hill is a master of the genre of course but I struggle to think of many others. Most fiction of this type was written in Victorian and Edwardian times as short stories, novels were rare, although some of the short stories could be pretty long. This book makes me want to search out some of the fantastic ones I've read and perhaps I will now do so. This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it if you fancy a proper ghostly read for RIP.
Two other reviews of this book are here at Margaret's blog, Booksplease and Susan's, You Can Never Have Too Many Books. I haven't read them yet as I wanted to come to the book fresh, but I shall go and read them now.
And another, GeraniumCat: here.