Thin Air

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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51KucvZBi0L._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_by Michelle Paver

Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. It’s 1935 and a British expedition plan to be the first to reach the summit. The book’s narrator is Stephen, he’s the team doctor and his older brother Kits, who he has a fractious relationship with, is another of the climbers. The group, five British men and a small army of Sherpas, are following the route taken by an Edwardian party led by a man named Lyall. Lyall’s expedition was a failure and several men died. Lyall survived and wrote a book which Stephen and Kits read as a child, which is part of their reason for undertaking the expedition.

Before the expedition starts Stephen has a disturbing encounter with a man named Tennant, the only other survivor of Lyall’s expedition, who warns Stephen and his group not to follow the same path.

They ignore his warnings and begin their slow ascent.  As the journey continues Stephen becomes more and more convinced that there is a spectre on the mountainside, an entity that means them harm.  Kangchenjunga is one of the deadliest places on earth, but a restless spirit might make it even more hazardous for Stephen and the others.

 

Paver’s central idea is a great one, there have been many haunted houses over the years, not sure I’ve seen too many haunted mountains, but given even today may people don’t return from attempts to claim the highest peaks, the idea of restless spirits hovering between base camps is a doozy.

Her research is meticulous, and goes into incredible detail about how such an expedition mounted in the 1930s may have functioned. Similarly her characters feel real for the time, especially in their, at times, barely disguised racism in their treatment of the Sherpas, and yet despite this there are no pantomime villains here, well except maybe for Kits because I think she does overdo the smug older brother trope a little.

There’s a lot of build-up before anything supernatural happens, and at times it feels a little like a travelogue, but her prose is good and, as stated, her research excellent, so the book is always interesting, and there is a subtle but mounting sense of dread as they draw closer to the mountain.

Once they’re climbing for real the horror begins. This isn’t a gorefest, and I’ve read quite a few reviews that state it isn’t very scary, and in truth it isn’t that chilling, and I can see what some people have said about the ending being something of an anti-climax, but when it works it’s very unsettling, especially when Paver puts you on that mountain, because it’s easy to imagine you’re on the mountainside, all alone in a blizzard, with only thin canvas between you and the malevolent spirit outside. The origin of that spirit, when it’s explained, is pretty horrific as well.

Perhaps it never quite lives up to its high concept (pardon the pun) and maybe it almost works better as a tale of men against the environment than a ghost story, but I enjoyed it and was never bored. She wrote another book beforehand that sounds similar, with a ghostly presence haunting an arctic research station, and on the basis of Thin Air I’m inclined to search it out.

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