Dark Matter by Juli Zeh
2 November, 2011
I first heard about Juli Zeh last year through one of Sarah Weinman’s posts (either on her now defunct and sadly missed blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind or her monthly crime column, Dark Passages, in the LA Times, I forget which) and promptly put her novel In Free Fall on my wishlist. It turns out Vintage published this novel under the title Dark Matter last year describing it as an existential crime thriller exploring the nature of man, philosophy and science. That ticks all my boxes and I chose it for my book group this month. I haven’t seen much coverage on the web except for Lizzy’s review.
Sebastian and Oskar are both physicists whose friendship goes back to their first encounter on their first day at university. Both tall, enigmatic and with minds like quick-silver, they stand apart from their peers although one is blond and the other dark. Their friendship is intense and touched with a competitive streak that will one day drive them apart as Sebastian chooses marriage to beautiful Maike and a domestic life coupled with a job as a Physics Professor at the university in Freiberg, while Oskar goes on to a glittering academic career and a job at CERN exploring the very fabric of reality. When Sebastian’s son Liam goes missing together with his car, he is given a clear yet enigmatic order. A split second decision will change the course of everyone’s lives and Sebastien turns to the one man who understands him more than anyone else, including himself. And once the course is set, can he and his family come out of it unscathed?
Can I just say how fracking brilliant it is? Juli Zeh’s debut has totally exceeded my expectations. In some ways, reading the blurb led me to believe the novel would proceed in a certain direction and although I sort of guessed the twist, Zeh’s intricate explanation was surprising and something I didn’t really expect. It went beyond the pedestrian and became a novel that is so much more than just a crime novel, or a novel of ideas. There was a perfect mixture of humanity, ideas and feeling. You cared about the characters as well as wanting to know what happens next. She doesn’t overexplain anything, yet gives you more than you expect. Her prose is delicate but robust. And she imbues daily life with the beauty of complex science. It made me want to read more about science just because science is about our world. That’s not an easy feat for a writer. And neither is it for Zeh’s translator Christine Lo who has done a remarkable job here.
The police component of the story was also nicely balanced. There is Rita Skura, the eccentric inspector who is looking into a hospital scandal and murder that may or may not be connected to Liam’s kidnapping. There is her old mentor Inspector Schilf who is brought in from Stuttgart to oversee the investigation and who is the only person who understands Skura. And there is her assistant Schnurpfeil who will follow Skura blindly and is a little in love with her. However cynical and weatherbeaten Schilf is, what I liked was the way he would not let go of hope and what he believed was worth saving.
Apart from the weaving of scientific ideas into the everyday narrative of the tale such as
Seb’s appearance in Maike’s life was – as he would express is – a wave function collapse in quantum mechanics
So Oskar is merely a random collection of matter from which the world is formed, containing everything that exists because it is impossible to be otherwise. He knows that the boundaries of his person blur in the enormous whirl of particles. He can literally feel his substance mixing with that of the people around him,
what I really liked about Zeh’s novel is how three dimensional the characters were including all their flaws, their strangeness, their intelligence and naïveté. Although reminiscient of the image of early 20th century scientists a la Einstein, Dirac or Oppenheimer, the fact that they are modern characters adds an edge to their make-up.
Probably the only weak point of the novel is at the end, the tying up of the various threads. But at the end, it’s no longer just about the crime; it’s a metaphysical journey into what is real and what is important and what you would sacrifice for your beliefs. It’s a clever and yet very poignant story about love and one that you may not expect when you start reading the book.
I don’t want to give away anything because I’d like you to read it and feel the sense of wonder I felt as each page slipped through my fingers, not knowing where this story was going, knowing that I will be surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about a book and I can’t wait to read more by Zeh.
Everyone at the book group enjoyed the book although the discussion threw up some interesting questions regarding belief, action and free will which made me think I may have to read this book again.
I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.
Caroline who, together with Lizzy, is hosting the German Literature Month November 2011 has kindly reminded me that this qualifies so do go and check out their blogs to see what German treats other participants are reading this month.