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Sunday, 07 November 2010 02:00

Dark Matter

By  Helen Moffett
I chose to review this particular book - a detective novel that focuses on the relationship between two physicists who are both friends and professional rivals - believing it would provide a challenge: physics and modern German thrillers are terra incognito for me. I was also intrigued by accounts of the up-and-coming author, Juli Zeh, whose debut novel Eagles and Angels won critical acclaim and numerous prizes.

I certainly found Dark Matter (titled In Free Fall in the US) an enlightening read. However, in the final analysis, I was not entertained, and I am not certain whether this is a reflection of my failings as a reader, or the failings of the author (or perhaps, the translator).

The novel is without a doubt original and intelligent. Perhaps this is its downfall: much of the early part of the work is given to exposition of theories of physics as they pertain to our understanding of time, experience and the universe. These explanations, often located in dialogue, are skilfully presented in that they are readable and comprehensible: but for me, they did not translate into riveting storytelling.

The plot revolves around two crimes: a kidnapping and a murder. Yet neither are what they first seem, and the story keeps curving (rather than twisting) as it unfolds. Zeh's gifts as a writer are not in dispute; there is not a wasted word in her taut and elegant prose. Her description of the anguish of a father who believes his son is lost is spine-chilling. She also controls pace with flair in this unusually structured thriller, in which the detective identifies his killer fairly early on, but then refuses to accept that this is an open-and-shut case. For the rest of the book, he fixates on establishing motive for both crimes - both murder and kidnapping - while racing against a ticking clock of his own.

So there is certainly much to admire, but perhaps not enough to engage in this novel.

I had hoped for more insight into a culture rather different to my own, but there is little sense or flavour of daily bourgeoisie German life, apart from one or two gems, the best of which is this dialogue between a mother and her young son:

"Let's not talk about that now."
"Every time you say that, it's about sex or the Nazis!"

The characters are also rather aloof: I found it hard to empathise with them, an essential quality for a thriller. The one exception is the gloriously rumpled and disoriented detective, Schilf, who is sent to solve the crime, inevitably ruffling the feathers of local law enforcement. A thoroughly engaging figure, freshly in love with someone he is never quite sure is more than a figment of his imagination, he would lend himself beautifully to a series, although it seems unlikely (for reasons I won't divulge, for fear of revealing too much) that he will reappear in subsequent books - a great pity.

Nevertheless, the meditations on love, obsession and betrayal are fascinating, as is the sense of constantly shifting reality in this book. In the final analysis, I found this to be a cerebral, yet chilly, novel - all head and not enough heart, perhaps.

Dark Matter
by Juli Zeh
Harvill Secker, 2010


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