Review: Thin Air

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 31, 2016 in Uncategorized tagged with ,

Thin Air. A Ghost Story

By Michelle Paver

Publisher: Orion Books (October 2016)

ISBN (Hardback) 9781409163343

ISBN (Export Trade paperback) 9781409163350

ISBN (Ebook) 9781409163374


Review by Leonor Ruiz-Ayúcar


Who does not like a good ghost story? Michelle Paver´s new book lands in the bookstores just in time for Halloween, so let’s sit on our favourite sofa and travel to the Himalayas with Thin Air: A Ghost story.

The story is set in 1935. The narrator, a young doctor called Stephen Pearce, is about to experience the most amazing and challenging adventure of his life. He is joining his brother Kits, and three other men, into an expedition to the Himalaya. They are going to climb the world’s third highest mountain, one of the atrocious eight-thousanders: The Kangchenjunga. He is really looking forward to joining the mountaineers and hoping to leave his troubled sentimental life in London.

This being a ghost story, it is only natural that this troupe of intrepid men follow the route and the exact footsteps of the illustrious Lyell expedition, where five men lost their lives. Kits, Pearce’s brother, has read the book Lyell wrote about this events over and over so, he is aware of every detail of the unfortunate expedition.

It is worth mentioning the marvellous research conducted by Paver. The setting, the climbing clothes worn by her characters, their language (with overt racist and classist connotations of colonial Britain) and some of the names and expeditions mentioned are accurate. She even confesses, in the book’s appendix, to having trekked the foothills around the Kangchenjunga as part of her research.

Paver seems to repeat the successful structure of her previous work Dark Matter: A Ghost Story. We find a troubled narrator joining a group of men and a dog into an adventure which brings them into contact with the supernatural. In her previous novel the expedition consisted of a sea journey to the Arctic whereas in Thin Air they head to the Himalaya.

Michelle Paver generates a magnificent description of the mountain and its snowy peaks. Isolation. Isolation is breathed and even savoured in both books. The Kangchenjunga becomes another character in her story, shaping a sublime terror that increases with every page. This uncanny nature is both haunting the mountaineers and itself haunted by a strange presence. The mountain has seen many real tragedies, and is morbidly known for the high toll of deaths and for being considered as sacred.

Stephen Pearce is joining a group of men to fulfil a dream: to ascend the Kangchenjunga and complete what the Lyell expedition could not perform: to reach the summit of the mountain. Pearce meets Charles Tennant, the only living survivor of Lyell’s crowd. This old and gloomy man warns him off and tries to dissuade the young man from this task. He says something that foreshadows future events: five men lost their lives in the mountain but only four were put to rest.

As the journey starts, the characters are exposed to the so called mountain sickness, which produces headaches, dizziness and visions. This peculiarity added to the tension that the reader is already experiencing, creates a dilemma: could the supernatural experiences be explained by this condition?

The story traps the reader from the beginning. As Stephen Pearce starts to lose his logical thinking and falls into desperation and isolation we follow his path. On the book’s cover we read “The higher you go, the darker it gets”. As the mountaineers gain height, the oxygen level decreases and the hallucinations start. This topic has been explored several times, even by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The presence called “the third man” (a climber that helps the lost and weary men in the mountains) usually appears in this kind of (con)texts. In this novel we are not going to find a kind “Third Man Factor”. It seems that the presence roving the mountains is not as friendly as this archetypical entity usually is. The more we read the darker it seems to get.

Thin Air is a book that provides the reader exactly what he is expecting: a nail biting story that, with every new page, makes the reader feel more and more isolated and overwrought by the immensity of the Kangchenjunga.




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