Not quite as Dark as ‘Matter’ but casting its own creeping, chilly shadow…..
I had thoroughly shivered and enjoyed, in terror, Michelle Paver’s earlier, chilly-set Dark Matter, so I was both delighted and a little worried when offered Thin Air, with a similarly chilly – though elevated, setting. My worry was literary, rather than the cold terror which I ideally was hoping to find – those of us who like stories involving the ghostly are, after all, WANTING the clammy neck, the sweaty palms, the jumping at shadows experience – and thankful for the ability to blaze lightbulbs all around, rather than the flicker of candles in the darkness of the night.
The literary worry was that there are always challenges when a writer manages something near perfection, and then repeats the same kind of recipe – will the reader have become wise to the particular authorial tricks, see them coming, and so not be able to feel and viscerally experience them, instead, stand outside and analyse
Well, yes, to a certain extent this did happen for me here, and has become responsible for a ‘like’ rather than a ‘love’ experience. It’s difficult to judge whether if THIS has been my first experience of a ghostly Paver, rather than Dark Matter, if this would have been the 5 and that the 4 – but I suspect not. One of the factors which made Dark Matter work so very well was that the central character was very much alone, which intensified the terror, the strangeness, the isolation.
Although Thin Air is still set in a forbidding, challenging cold landscape – one of the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga, there are many more people in this story so there isn’t quite the feeling of isolation which made Dark Matter so powerful.
The period is shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. A group of 5 British climbers (and a larger group of accompanying Sherpas) are attempting to climb Everest’s third highest mountain by its most difficult, inaccessible route. One which has already been responsible for deaths, and which the Sherpas, undertaking their role only because of course they need to make a living, have grave doubts over. The Sherpas are far more aware of ‘supernatural forces’ and the need to respect the mountain, and also propitiate, by ritual, forces which might need propitiation or avoidance. There are conflicts between this approach and the forces of ‘rationality’ which denies any of those forces, which the scientific, left-brain British team represent.
Within the British climbing team, there are other, interesting conflicts, most clearly seen in sibling rivalry between Christopher ‘Kits’ Pearce, highly ambitious, successful mountaineer, and his brother Stephen, who is narrator. Stephen is a late choice for the team who are to proceed to the summit. He is a doctor, and a far more complex, introspective and open-minded character than Kits.
There are some mysteries and shadows over an earlier, unsuccessful attempt on Kangchenjunga by the ‘bad’ route. Stephen has a sensitivity towards the Sherpas and their intuition, plus a susceptibility to ‘feeling the atmosphere’ which his brother lacks. Nevertheless, he is a scientist, a rational man, so is also aware of the profound effects produced by altitude sickness. So there is an interesting conundrum for him – is he a classic ‘unreliable narrator’ – is what is going on ‘imaginings’ brought about by mountain fever and the altered physiology of oxygen starvation, or are there external realities. It is not just the reader who wonders, we follow Stephen’s wonderings.
To help us along and to decide whether the Sherpas or the rationalists should be trusted, there is a dog (just as there were dogs in Dark Matter) But, of course, a dog would also be experiencing altitude sickness…………..
As I got further into the book I was able to leave the memories of Dark Matter behind, and surrender to Paver’s telling of THIS tale
And my enjoyment and shiver mounted with the appearance of the terrifying object, deployed so brilliantly in one of the best and most shivery ‘ghosts’ I ever read – W.W.Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw. Paver has an object, and I whimpered anxiously as it brought the added accretion of my memory of Jacobs’ story into the room
I received this as an ARC from the publishers via NetGalley. It will be published, in hardback and digital in the UK on 6th October, and also on that date in digital in the States