Thin Air, by Michelle Paver, is a ghost story from an author who knows how to write compelling suspense. Having read her excellent Dark Matter a couple of years ago I had been saving this one for my Halloween read. It did not disappoint.
Set in 1935 it tells the story of a group of five wealthy, English gentlemen who set out to conquer Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak on earth. Public school and Oxbridge educated, they climb to prove their supremacy over nature, with some regarding aids such as crampons or oxygen tanks as unsporting on such an endeavour. One of the group has not had quite such as privileged an upbringing, something that sets him apart – a suspicion over his trustworthiness in a crisis.
“He’s also a shade off in the vowels, and seems very eager to fit in”
Such snobbery is nothing compared to the way these grown boys, setting off on a spiffing adventure, regard the natives they employ to fetch and carry. These men and women include the Sherpas who will transport kit and provisions as well as guiding the group through the hostile high terrain. Where the ‘sahibs’ struggle with exertion and altitude, the local men cover the same ground numerous times setting up base camps, cooking food, and advising on conditions. Their wariness of the mountain, manifesting in rituals, is treated with disdain.
The English party includes two brothers, Kit and Stephen, who struggle to contain their long standing sibling rivalry. Stephen was invited late, as the necessary group doctor, after the original choice suffered an incapacitating mishap.
The story is narrated by Stephen as it unfolds. Although excited and determined he increasingly suffers nightmares and a heightened awareness of malevolent forces. He must suppress his fears if he is to be permitted to continue.
The story opens with a visit to the last remaining survivor of a previous attempt to climb the mountain, which ended in failure and numerous deaths. A memoir was written about this self-declared heroic experience which led to Kit revering the author and group leader, Lyell. Kit now intends to follow in Lyell’s footsteps, and to succeed in reaching the summit and planting the British flag before rival Germans. Their native helpers are fearful of the spirits that linger on a doomed route.
The attitudes of the Englishmen are astonishing. They regard day climbs in the Alps as sufficient preparation for the Himalayas. One has a touch of arthritis which the others try not to mention. They bring a typewriter and a gramophone as luggage, carried of course by the Sherpas who they treat as animals, load bearers with no sense or agency. The English regard their endeavour as meritorious despite the obvious risks to themselves and their essential helpers.
The journey offers many challenges, exacerbated by altitude sickness. As a doctor Stephen understands the effects but cannot shake his growing, visceral fear. When mail is delivered (incongruous as this may seem during a challenging mountain adventure, but the English abroad do demand that their standards be catered for) he learns of the true fate of the group’s predecessors. What he has tried to convince himself cannot exist, now presents as a deadly threat.
The story is masterfully structured with an authentic voice, interesting character development and building tension. The self-importance of the English is both staggering and depressingly familiar. This is a ghost story but also a portrayal of the foolishness of those raised to believe themselves superior due to birth and wealth. It is a reminder that nature does not distinguish, and it is in man’s interest to treat his surrounds with care and respect.
Thin Air is published by Orion Books.