Book Title: DARK MATTER
Author: Juli Zeh
Publisher: Harvill Secker
No of Pages: 322
Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But their lives took divergent paths, as did their scientific views. Whenever Oskar comes to visit from his prestigious research post in Geneva, there is tension in the air, and it doesn’t help their friendship that he feels Sebastian has not lived up to his intellectual capacities, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy.
A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar. Then Detective Schilf comes on the scene, with a most unorthodox method of uncovering the truth.
DARK MATTER is one of those books that I picked up with considerable happy anticipation, so was more than a little startled to find myself really struggling to get into the start of it. Until a point at which I found I wasn't struggling and was completely absorbed.
And I suspect that's very much what the book is set out to do. Set in Freiburg near the Black Forest, the book starts out with two men and their obsessions. Their friendship begins at University, studying physics - Sebastian, retains his love of physics opting for academia, sharing his love of physics with his love for his wife Maike and young son Liam. Oskar is less traditional, hanging onto many of the eccentricities of their university days - he goes onto research, pure physics. Despite a falling out between the two, they continue to meet on the first Friday of every month and debate - argue - discuss late into the night. Then Liam is kidnapped and Sebastian is told that he must kill a man to regain his son. Understandably his life shatters, he feels set adrift from everybody and everything and he makes some choices which seem to the reader, the outsider, inexplicable.
It's through the early phase of the book that I really found myself struggling - firstly with the relationship between Sebastian and Oskar which, whilst interesting, didn't seem to be telling me anything in particular, and secondly with how Sebastian, a supposedly intelligent man, managed to let himself be manipulated to that point (despite father love and the desire to do anything to protect your child, without giving the plot away, there are factors which seem inexplicable).
But enter the police Detective Schilf and things get really interesting - the book shifts focus from an almost mocking, frivolous tone into a profoundly emotional character study. Not just a character study, this book quickly evolves into one in which the reader is forced to consider some hairy questions - what would you do if you had weeks or hours to live, one final case, and a guilty man in extenuating circumstances?
It's also at this point that the structure of the book begins to makes sense - and those chapter introductions stop being slightly quirky (Chapter one in seven parts. Sebastian cuts curves. Maike cooks. Oskar comes to visit. Physics is for lovers. / Chapter four in seven parts. Rita Skura has a cat. The human being is a hole in nothingness. After a delay the detective chief superintendent enters the scene) and start to have a point - sometimes they ask a question / sometimes they state a thought to be explored / sometimes they just intrigue. All in all it's at this point that DARK MATTER stops being a slightly darker version of TV's The Big Bang Theory and starts to become a character study of depth, layers and great emotional impact.
All in all I'd have to say, stick with the early part of DARK MATTER. It's not crime fiction just for entertainment, and it's often confusing and slightly odd and there are parts of the book that will make you stop and think, and maybe back-track a bit. But this is crime fiction for thought provocation and boy does it manage to do exactly that.