I absolutely loved Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter – a ghost story set in the Arctic Circle – and I was delighted to find out that she was publishing another ghost story, this time set in the Himalayas.
It’s 1935, and Dr Stephen Pearce heads to Darjeeling to meet his brother, Kits, and three other Brits who hope to conquer Kangchenjunga – the third highest peak in the world, and one that is said to have claimed more lives than Everest. They intend to follow in the footsteps of Kits’ hero, Sir Edmund Lyell, whose 1906 expedition was hit by tragedy.
Setting out from Darjeeling, Pearce has some qualms after an uncomfortable meeting with Charles Tennant, the last surviving member of the Lyell expedition. Why is it that he seems frightened of Kangchenjunga? What really happened on the 1906 expedition?
Like Dark Matter, Thin Air exposes the protagonist to some of the harshest conditions we can face – in this case, high altitude, difficult terrain and extreme temperatures. With both novels, I’ve found that this enhances the story, as it gives the character a way of explaining the strange events that they are experiencing – is it in their imagination, is their mind playing tricks on them? And the conditions add an element of danger in themselves – one false step on Kangchenjunga could end a person’s life. It all adds up to make a very atmospheric read.
It’s surprising how much detail Paver has managed to pack into such a short novel. The complexities of mountaineering and dealing with the conditions, the setting and the landscape, the beliefs of the native Sherpas who climb with the party are all tied seamlessly into the narrative. In particular, Paver is able to transport the reader to Kangchenjunga – so much so that you can almost feel the temperature dropping and the air thinning as they ascend the mountain.
I also loved the brotherly rivalry between Stephen and Kits. The two brothers are very different, although they do have their love of climbing in common. Whilst Kits is one of those annoying people who seems to have everything he could want handed to him, Stephen has fought much harder to get where he is, and to get out of Kits’ shadow. While Stephen wants to experience Kangchenjunga, Kits is there for fame and glory. It’s perhaps a little simplistic in terms of the who the reader is meant to empathise with, but it does add an extra element to the story as Stephen seeks to prove himself to his brother.
Overall, I really liked Thin Air, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Dark Matter, possibly because there are a lot of similarities between the two.
An exercise in constant tension, this is a slim volume that will keep you on the edge of your seat, as it’s clear that something will happen, you’re just not sure what, or when, or to whom.