"Thin Air" Michelle Paver
This relatively shorter novel of 288 pages is subtitled "A Ghost Story" and that is exactly what it is! A clever, chilling, compelling read that is short enough to enjoy in a couple of sittings thus ensuring that the tension is taught and beautifully controlled throughout the whole length of the book.
Paver has set her novel in 1935 where we meet brothers Stephen and Kit. They have travelled to India to climb the world's third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga, which no one has scaled before. The brothers are following in the footsteps of an expedition in 1907 when 5 men lost their lives. One of the survivors, Lyell, published his memoir depicting his heroism throughout the expedition as the men battled atrocious weather, misfortune and mountain sickness. Stephen still has his copy of the book with him as a motivational guide and is the reason behind the brother's decision to climb such a dangerous and precarious mountain.
Before they set off to fulfil their dream, Stephen meets Charles Tennant who warns him against going. But he is determined, and it is only as they climb higher and higher and the oxygen levels drop, Stephen begins to fear that Lyell's account of the trip is by no means a true account of what passed between the explorers.
I wanted to read this as soon as I heard about it. "Dark Matter", Paver's previous adult ghost story, had both impressed me and stayed with me - in fact I am easily able to recall images from it right now four and a half years after finishing it. I think this book will have the same lasting impact.
Paver's writing easily captures the style of the 1930s, placing you firmly in that era; her ability to narrate so convincingly in the believable voice of a male protagonist is commendable. I liked the tone and it reminded me of several other very established authors - particularly Susan Hill.
Stephen's excitement and determination to succeed in his challenging climb is palpable. "We are going to conquer that mountain. We are going to be the first men in the world to ever stand on top," he states boldly and as they continue to prepare the enormity of their journey begins to hit the reader. The foreboding atmosphere is cast across the page as dark as the shadow of the mountain on the men. Tennant's recoiling and convulsive shuddering alerts some sense of trepidation within Stephen as he knows Tennant to be the "toughest mountain climber who ever lived." Tennant's almost mad rantings and repetition of "it'll kill you if it can" personifies the malignant nature of the mountain - compounded by the rites of the Indian natives accompanying the trip as they pray for protection from the evil force they believe it to have. From this point the mountain competes to become the most important character in the novel and the more supernatural feel of the book begins to creep its way across the pages.
There is a lot about dreaming in the book. Tennant and Stephen are both haunted by nightmares - again another great technique to enhance the ghostly nature of the story and to blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. It also makes the characters seem as if they are indeed falling under some kind of spell or magical, invisible, malevolent force.
The men's journey begins in the jungle. It is "oppressive ....steamy with the smell of decay". Everything from the foliage to the animals and wildlife is unusual, different, bizarre as well as immense. Again, Paver uses her setting to evoke a sense of suffocation, apprehension and premonition. The men are "like ants,we pick our way around gigantic boulders and over thunderous torrents whose roars follow us up deserted valleys. We all feel our insignificance." We would expect a description of the jungle to be filled with colour, excitement, beauty and admiration but here, it is the opposite. There is nothing friendly or recognisable about this environment. The mountain is remote and you can almost sense it's desire to stay impregnable.
As well as a fantastic description of the setting and environment, Paver also develops the relationship between the climbers. The exploration of the brother's relationship is very well handled and adds further depth and tension to the story.
I can't say any more about the plot or structure without spoiling the book for other readers but it was gripping. I am a big fan of novels where the unease and fear is created through subtle imagery. Paver ensures that her description works a bit like dominoes, layering and layering themselves higher and higher until they completely suffocate the reader in a fog of fear and horror.
There are similarities between this novel and "Dark Materials" but as Paver's writing excels in both and I enjoyed both, this is not a concern for me. It is different enough not to feel in any way repetitive and I think Paver's use of language and atmosphere is engaging enough to capture the reader's imagination and sweep them along however well you remember the previous book.
I would recommend this book to people who like ghostly stories, who like novels featuring male protagonists and books set in extreme locations about extreme challenges. It will also appeal to readers of more classical texts and fans of "The Woman in Black".
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.
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