Fiction set in USA and EUROPE: the life of Maria Callas
Novel set in the Himalayas
27th May 2017
Thin Air by Michelle Paver – a novel set in the Himalayas.
It is 1935 and Stephen Pearce, a young medic, travels to India partly to escape the extremely irate father of his recently jilted fiancée. He has been offered the opportunity to take part in an expedition to climb Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain and one that has a well justified reputation for killing off climbers. No one has yet succeeded in reaching the summit and the team are literally following in the footsteps of the doomed 1907 Lyell Expedition, during which five men lost their lives. Lyell subsequently published his memoir of the expedition, “Bloody But Unbowed” making much of his own heroism in the face of the appalling weather, ghastly disasters and “mountain sickness” caused by the high altitudes.
Quite enough to put anyone off, I hear you cry and certainly no one with a lick of sense would be attempting it. But this is the 1930s when men were made of sterner stuff and Stephen had read Lyell’s memoir as a boy and had long admired him. That’s not to say that he felt totally at ease when contemplating the expedition and, as the team prepare, his unease deepens. The only other survivor of the 1907 climb, Charles Tennant, warns him off in no uncertain terms, hinting at terrifying experiences not chronicled in Lyell’s memoir. He also cryptically tells Stephen that, although five men died in 1907, only four were laid to rest.
As the team climb higher and higher, the men begin to be adversely affected by the lack of oxygen and Stephen begins to see (or to think he sees) strange things. Paver cleverly leaves the reader unsure whether Stephen is just suffering from optical illusions born of mountain sickness, but, as the macabre reminders of the earlier expedition keep coming, he is forced to wonder about the veracity of Lyell’s account.
Another thing making the experience difficult is that Stephen’s older brother, Kits, is part of the expedition. Kits has led something of a charmed life in marked contrast to Stephen and the sibling rivalry between the two is clear from the start. Paver is good at teasing out this relationship and it is one of the most enthralling things about the book.
Now this is emphatically not the kind of book I would choose to read. To say that I have no interest in mountaineering would be a gross understatement, so I began it with some trepidation and then, quite simply, couldn’t stop reading. For a start, it is beautifully written. It is full of wonderful, vivid descriptions of the mountain, the imagery is startling and the prose is as clean and sharp as the mountain air itself. What I loved even more than the language, however, is Paver’s evocation of the period. She seems to be able to get right to the heart of 1930’s attitudes and doesn’t shy away from the class snobbery and racism that was prevalent then. And that’s without mentioning that it’s a darned good, skilfully plotted, chilling ghost story.
The setting – principally Kangchenjunga itself – is so clearly and powerfully drawn that the images stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, which is just as well, as it’s the nearest I’m ever going to get to such a mountain, but for those of you who plan to spend your next vacation hiking up Kangchenjunga, this is the book for you … or possibly not.
Ellen for the TripFiction Team
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