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Thin Air

posted on 17 Apr 2017

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

What’s the best way to spend a rather cold, dismal Easter day when the shops are closed and there’s no real incentive to set foot out of doors? I pondered the possibilities, scanned the bookshelves and hit the jackpot – read a spooky tale of the supernatural. Thin Air is Paver’s second excursion into ghost story territory and, having read the first, Dark Matter, I was pretty confident that I’d be in safe hands.

Thin Air isn’t set in what you might call a classic supernatural environment – ghosts and mountaineering don’t immediately strike you as natural bed-fellows I have to admit. I should confess here that I don’t really get mountaineering. I find it almost impossible to understand the cult of the mountaineer as great adventurer or hero and I’m more in sympathy with those who think the real heroes are the people who enable us to go around or through mountains rather than be forced to climb them.

So I count it as something of a writing triumph that Paver’s fictional account of a 1935 expedition to climb the Himalayan peak, Kanchenjunga, had me completely riveted from the outset. As well as being an exceptionally atmospheric, spooky and oppressive read, it is also a complex and multi-faceted book that explores issues as varied as internal and external realities, class conflicts, sibling rivalry and the casual racism that so characterised the last years of Empire.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined a team of climbers led by his charismatic but hostile older brother, Christopher (Kits), who plan to retrace a legendary climb undertaken previously by the ill-fated Lyell expedition that ended in failure and death. The inspiration for the adventure comes from the childhood years of the brothers when they were given a copy of the book about this heroic failure written by one of the only two survivors.

From the very outset the omens are not good. The weather is foul before they even get onto the mountain, the Sherpas and guides are reluctant to trace the steps of a failed expedition and the sturdy rationality of the Westerners gets slowly rubbed away as they progress up the mountain. Paver is excellent at suggesting that the huge mountain is almost a sentient entity and her ability to suggest fear and discomfort in shadows and things half-seen is brilliant. Ragged ravens wheel around the skies like harbingers of doom.

As we begin to get an inkling that there was something more sinister about one of the deaths on the Lyell climb so we also get a mounting sense that the psychological and physical condition of the current expedition is beginning to fracture. The appearance of a mysterious canvas rucksack is the tipping point in the story as a mysterious dark figure begins to appear to various members of the team. Is this, as Stephen fears, a foretelling of his own death, will he too suffer the dreadful fate of the lost Ward on the Lyell climb?

It’s a ghost story so I’m not going to tell you any more – you’ll want to find this out for yourself. In the end it’s for you to decide whether the ‘supernatural’ is out there or lurking somewhere inside us. Just maybe the ghosts we conjure are just another way of talking about the karma we bring down on ourselves?

 

Terry Potter

April 2017