October 26, 2016 - 12:33 am
Page Count: 240
Release date: 2016
Reviewed by Chris Amies
“Thin Air” tells the story of an expedition to climb Mount Kangchenjunga, the ‘Five Treasures of the Snows’, the most remote and inaccessible of the great Himalayan peaks. Stephen Pearce, medical officer on a British expedition up the mountain in 1935, finds himself at odds with his fellow climbers from the start, not least with his would-be heroic brother Kits, who drafted him in at the last moment as a replacement for an injured man. They are following the route of the Lyell expedition of 1907, and Pearce, reasonably in his opinion, goes to see a survivor of that climb, Charles Tennant. Their meeting does not go well and Pearce leaves with the sense that there is something deeply wrong with the expedition, and with the official story of what happened in 1907. Tennant’s diary notes that while five men died on Kangchenjunga, they only buried four. The Lyell expedition is fictional, but it is has similarities with the 1905 climb which is mentioned on several occasions (“The expedition led by that scoundrel [Aleister] Crowley in ’05”).
“Thin Air” is a novel in the style of the classic pre-war mountain adventure story, a genre soundly and brilliantly parodied in Bowman’s “The Ascent of Rum Doodle” (a reference to ‘glacier lassitude’ took me back to ‘Rum Doodle’ and its various forms of ‘lassitude’). “Thin Air” is also a ghost story with a slowly building unease and horror. Pearce has a growing sense that what Lyell wrote in his memoir “Bloody but Unbowed” (a quote from WE Henley there, possibly because Lyell, like Henley, lost a leg) is far from the whole truth. This unease, and Stephen’s growing feeling that he can no longer trust his own perceptions, meshes with the general hardship and slog of the climb, the ice, the freezing wind, avalanches, frost-nip and snow-blindness. This is a small expedition by the standards of the day and even they are accompanied by sixty porters or as they call them, coolies. The casual racism of the era is something that Pearce notes but his fellow climbers don’t see. The older brother is the old school gung-ho expedition leader who wants to ‘conquer’ the mountain – not a phrase in favour these days, because the mountain is always better than you, with inevitable results. Even now, one in five climbers who set out to summit Kangchenjunga die in the attempt.
“Thin Air” is a very effective ghost story. The feeling of cold and dread and nightmare stayed with me long afterwards.
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