Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Horror in the Himalayas…

😀 😀 😀 😀

thin airIt’s 1935. When the medic for a Himalayan expedition is injured, Dr Stephen Pearce is asked to stand in. His elder brother Kits is already part of the expedition. There’s always been a sibling rivalry between the two brothers and, although acknowledging that Kits is the better climber, Stephen determines that he too will make it to the summit of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and as yet unconquered. The team of five men proposes to tackle the South-West Face, a route taken by the earlier Lyell expedition which ended in tragedy after they were struck by an avalanche. Only two survived – Lyell himself, and Charles Tennant who has been haunted ever since by his experiences on the mountain. And so they set off… but Stephen soon begins to feel haunted himself…

After Michelle Paver’s fabulous Dark Matter, my expectations for this chilly ghost story were high indeed. Perhaps that’s why I found this one a little disappointing. I know this is becoming one of my most regular rants, so I’m going to give it a scientific name – FF’s First Law: The length of a book should be determined by the requirements of the story. This is a short book in comparison to most, coming in at 240 pages, but nonetheless it is too long for the story it tells. The result is that the first half, more or less, is simply a long description of the trek to the mountain and the setting up of the first camps, with a narrator who finds everything either disappointing or horrible. (“Well, I never expected this. The glacier’s horrible.” “More bloody cairns. I do wish they’d use flags.” “I don’t care for the knoll.” “I can’t get used to how cramped it is in my tent.” “Just now, he called me over to admire a giant ‘flower’, its trumpet head a blotched greenish purple, and bowed, like a cobra about to strike. He says it’s a snake lily. I think it’s revolting.”) I assume all this negativity is designed to show us, firstly, that the environment is harsh and unwelcoming and, secondly, that his mental state is already precarious, but I quickly found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.

kangchenjunga south-eest face

It’s very well-written and gives a real feel for what a climbing expedition of that era would have been like, so in that sense it’s interesting but, although there is some foreshadowing of events to come, the anticipated atmosphere of impending horror doesn’t really take off until past the halfway point. Then, after the main events which really only fill about a third of the book, there is a long and unnecessary wrap-up in which we learn more than we need to about what happens to some of the characters in their future.

The bit in the middle where the horror actually happens, though, is excellent, right up there with Dark Matter. This is not gore-fest horror – it’s all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that have taken hold of Stephen’s mind.

Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver

Thinking about it, the book might actually have worked better without the horror element though. The story of the dynamics within the group and their patronising air of superiority to the Sherpas and “coolies” who accompanied them is very well done, as is the description of the practicalities and difficulties of the climb. Kits’ and Stephen’s relationship is an interesting and credible picture of the rivalries that can happen between brothers, especially when, as in this case, the elder brother inherits enough wealth to allow him to pursue his dreams while the younger brother must earn a living. Paver is very strong on the nuances of class, as she was also in Dark Matter. But, for me at any rate, the anticipation of horror to come meant that much of this seemed extraneous in the context and merely served to slow things down.

I’m struggling to rate it. Somehow it falls between two genres and as a result doesn’t quite work as well as it might have done had it concentrated on either. But both writing and characterisation are excellent, it has an authentic feel to the descriptions of the expedition, and the horror when it comes is skilfully done. So, while it didn’t quite meet my hopes for it, I enjoyed it overall and would happily recommend it, especially to people who don’t mind a slow build-up to their fix of horror.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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35 thoughts on “Thin Air by Michelle Paver

  1. Ah, you see, I haven’t read Dark Matter and I think that helped, because I did not necessarily expect anything of this book. I too found the ‘imperialistic’ tones between the expedition leaders and the ‘coolies’ fascinating, and the claustrophobia and extreme conditions described were very effective.

    • Yes, that’s the problem with writing a great book – it sets up too high expectations for the next one. If you liked this, I suspect you’d really enjoy Dark Matter – she uses the long Arctic night brilliantly to get an even stronger feeling of claustrophobia. Terrified me silly, but in a good way…

  2. “found I had an overwhelming urge to shove him off the mountain.” I had to laugh aloud at this statement, FF! Outstanding, you know (and I haven’t even read this one).

    I think publishers might be to blame for some of these long-winded tomes. In an effort to realize the most bang for their buck, they’ve encouraged novel-length works that probably should have been more properly novelettes (or even short stories). Still, I’m glad to hear this one — at least from its middle on — is a pretty good read.

    • Haha! Fortunately my murderous tendencies are restricted to fictional people… so far! 😉

      Yes, I don’t really understand it myself, and of course some people like the slow burn. But with horror especially it’s really hard to maintain a scary atmosphere for a long period. I reckon this one would have made a great novella…

  3. Sounds quite interesting. Unfortunately, I am not interested in mountains or climbing, so this probably isn’t for me. It seems to have plenty going for it, though, so I wish this chilly novel the best of luck! 😀

    • Nor am I much, but she managed to make me interested in it, so that’s a sign of her skill. And she scared me nicely when the horror finally arrived. She’s a great writer, even though this one didn’t blow me away quite as much as the last one…

  4. I’m glad you got a solid sense of atmosphere and setting from this, FictionFan. It has the makings of a terrific suspense story, among other things, and I can see how you could get drawn into it just on that score. And I agree with you about the length issue. I’ve always thought: tell a story, then be done. It’s not as easy to do as it is to talk about, but it is a worthy goal.

    • She’s great at developing atmosphere – and at characterisation actually. But horror in particular always seems better suited to a shorter format – it’s very difficult to maintain a scary atmosphere for a long time. Still, the pluses definitely outweighed the minuses in this one!

    • Thanks! 🙂 Haha! Fortunately real people don’t seem to inspire my murderous tendencies quite as much as fictional ones… but really, he’d have been vastly improved by a 4,000 foot drop down a precipice! 😉

    • Ooh, I hope you enjoy Dark Matter – I thought it was pretty much perfect in terms of creating a really creepy atmosphere out in the cold Arctic night! Out of the two of them, that’s definitely the one I would recommend… 😀

    • It is, and she writes so well that she really brings the setting to life. But somehow Dark Matter seemed to get to the point more quickly and its setting – the long Arctic night – was even more creepy! If you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  5. I’ve had the urge to shove a few characters off mountains too! Though I know for a fact I would be complaining about the weather and my inner dialogue would be a misery fest, so I must give a small, small pass… sounds like a good one though.

    • Haha! Yes, I’d no doubt have moaned my way up the mountain too, but he should have been more heroic – or evne just more enthusiastic! It is good, but Dark Matter is even better. But neither is nearly as scary as real life at the moment… 😉

  6. I love the idea of Literary Laws – I’m looking forward to FF’s Second Law, whatever it may turn out to be! 🙂
    As for the book, I think a book about mountain climbing is scary enough without even adding in any extra horror. But this does sound good to me. I read a book about a mountain climber a few years ago, and loved it because I was terrified for him and I even knew what was going to happen (based on a true story about George Mallory). The narrator in this book sure sounds like a complainer, though, doesn’t he?

    • Haha! I’m thinking of listing all my literary laws but it might push my blog over WordPress’s space limit! 😉 Yes, I actually thought the whole story of the mountain climbing had plenty of potential for drama and tension without the need for a ghostly element. Especially if I’d happened to be behind the narrator on the edge of a precipice when he started moaning again! Seriously, though, she is very strong on creating a real sense of these extreme environments – she did the same in Dark Matter. I’m intrigued to know what she’ll do next…

  7. Remind me never, never, never to go on a walk with you to high and lonely places, who knows what you might feel impelled to do if I repeatedly say anything to annoy you.

    But I agree (so maybe you won’t push me off) with an earlier reply you made to another comment – real life IS scarier than fiction at the moment. Here’s a thought, do y0u think you persuade the Orange Donald to walk up a mountain with you – several of us would be prepared to be ready and waiting and hidden behind a rock, and we will aid by a collective push.

    • Haha! I have to admit that if you and I were traipsing up a mountain, I suspect I’d be the one moaning about being cold and tired, while you’d be tripping lightly along ooh-ing and aah-ing about how lovely everything was!

      I can’t bear to watch the coverage any more – my heart has sunk so far it’s come out through my feet and is heading Australia-wards. It simply can’t happen! Can it?? *trembles fearfully*

  8. I totally agree with your law, FF (one reason why some trilogies don’t work for me).
    Now I’m thinking of Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s memoir. Not because it’s bad, but because it is an account of a Everest climb.

    • It’s something that’s been bugging me more and more recently – it’s as if authors decide how long the book has to be in advance and then just add filler to get up to the required length… grrr!

      This one does, though, give a really believable account of what mountain-climbing was like back in those days – she’s excellent at these extreme environments.

  9. That is an excellent First Law! Mountain climbing and horror seem like a strange combination. I agree that the things that can and do go wrong while mountain climbing are probably worthy of a ‘straight’ story, particularly when siblings are involved. I won’t be adding this book to my list though.

    • The horror bit worked really well when it finally arrived but the book would have worked without it too. Again, she may have been “forced” into doing another ghost story by her publisher after the success of Dark Matter. I wish they’d trust readers a bit more to not need authors to keep churning out the same book again and again…

  10. There used to be this fantastic small budget film on Netflix called Devil’s Pass about mountain climbers. It was a horror movie that to forever to get scary, but when it did–boy howdy! Your review remind if that movie at first, so I’m bummed that this book has an identity crisis.

    • Yes, it was a pity – trying to do too much maybe. But when it got to the scary bit it was great – she’s really good at getting that creepy atmosphere of psychological horror. Still very much worth reading, even if it wasn’t quite as effective as her last one…

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