Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016, Pb 2017 | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.
And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.
Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.
The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.
There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.
The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.
Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.