Breathless by Amy McCulloch

Michael Joseph | 2022 (17 February) | 320p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Adventure journalist Cecily Wong needs a break and she also needs to put the past behind her. To do that she must confront her fears and the golden opportunity comes when legendary mountaineer Charles McVeigh offers her an exclusive interview. If, that is, she can reach the summit of Manaslu in Nepal, the eighth highest mountain in the world. It is a monumental task but Cecily and the other teams on Manaslu will have more than the elements, the lethal terrain and the lack of oxygen to contend with. There is uneasiness among those on the mountain, Cecily hears things she cannot explain, there are memories of fallen climbers, and soon there are deaths.

I have always been drawn to thrillers set in cold, wintry and inhospitable places. There is something about the battle to survive against all that the environment can muster against you. Having said all that, I’m not physically drawn to them at all and mountains terrify me! But the same cannot be said for Amy McCulloch, a fine writer who knows what she writes about. This is an author who has summited Mount Manaslu. She actually did it. How amazing is that?! And all of that personal experience and endeavour makes Breathless more real and convincing than ever.

You really can feel the effort and inherent danger of this climb. Cecily Wong and her fellow climbers are not ‘normal’ people. There is something truly epic about them, whatever their failings and arguments, and that something special really shines out in this novel, even while we see their flaws. Few of the climbers, if any, are without their personal battles. There is much to prove on the lawless precipices and crevasses of Manaslu.

The descriptions of actually how to scale a mountain such as this are fascinating, with the repeated climbs to camps for acclimatisation and so on, as well as the detail of specific parts of the climb, particularly sheer walls of ice and rock. This mountain has claimed many lives and, reading this, you can understand why. And that’s even without the thriller element! But this is a great place to get away with murder.

The thriller itself is an exciting read and very atmospheric. This feels like a haunted mountain and that adds to its tension and air of dread. I liked Cecily, our journalist heroine who must overcome some personal, traumatising hurdles to find the story that will save her career. It is true that the story is a bit predictable (I worked it out early on). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining thriller that really captures the sheer effort of the ascent. I was none the wiser by the end why anyone would want to put themselves through it but I was left in awe of this author who did just that.

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