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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