No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017/79: Thin Air -- Michelle Paver

‘...the Big Stone’. That’s all Kangchenjunga is. ... It might possess a semblance of animation, because of the wind, and the crack of canvas, and the distant rumble of an avalanche on the Saddle – but that’s all it is, a semblance. There is no life up here. And no menace, either. The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is. [loc. 1382]
Thin Air is set in the mid-1930s. Stephen Pearce, who's just broken with his fiancee, is glad to have been recruited by his brother Kits as the doctor for a mountaineering expedition. The expedition's goal is to climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, which has never been successfully summitted. Over them all hangs the heroic shadow of the Lyell expedition of 1906, in which most of the men died. (Well, most of the British men. Quite a lot of coolies and Sherpas survived.)

Stephen and Kits don't really get along: there is a great deal of sibling rivalry and ill-will. This makes Stephen even less willing than the others to speak of his premonitions, of the glimpses of a dark figure that he sees, of the sudden silences that cut him off from 'earthly things' and leave him with a sense of appalling loneliness. He's a man of science, damn it! He doesn't believe in ghosts, or psychic energies, or warding off the dead. His odd mental state must be the thin air altering his perceptions, or some kind of altitude sickness ...

Stephen comes to believe that there is something malevolent with them on the mountain. And as he discovers, and remembers, and discusses more about the Lyell expedition, he begins to realise that the official account doesn't tell the whole story. But why is he the only one of the five mountaineers -- apart from the dog Cedric, who will no longer share Stephen's tent -- who is experiencing the strangeness?

This is one of the more unnerving ghost stories I've ever read: I suspect that images from the novel will stay with me for a long time. It's very similar, in many respects, to Paver's Dark Matter, which I read earlier this year and found equally chilling: but perhaps the ways in which it's similar -- first-person narrative; complex, repressed emotions; isolated 'frontier' landscape of dangerous physical extremes; dogs that sense more than humans do; journals -- are also the ways in which it's effective.

And, like the best historical novels, Thin Air sparked a fascination with its setting: in this case, early twentieth century mountaineering, which is dangerous and frightening (and exhilarating) even without supernatural elements.

Any recommendations for novels which might have the same emotional impact on me?

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