H.E. Bulstrode

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Thin Air by Michelle Paver

The urge to scale lofty peaks where the air is so rarefied that life struggles to support itself unaided, and the cold is so intense that it threatens to deprive the climber of such ‘superfluous’ elements of the body like fingers, toes and nose, might strike many a reader as a form of madness in itself. To suggest, therefore, that to find oneself in this element, amidst unforgiving rock, ice and snow, might give rise to hallucinatory visions, seems perfectly reasonable. It is not so great a step, having made this observation, that such an arena might constitute a suitable setting for the appearance of ghosts.

Whereas Michelle Paver escorted the reader to the dark and forbidding isolation of the Arctic in her first ghostly novel aimed at adult readers – Dark Matter – in her next excursion into the supernatural – Thin Air – we enter the more elevated environment of the High Himalaya. The disorientating effects of ice, snow and darkness found in the first novel are thus compounded by the relative lack of oxygen, the perils of murderous crevasses and sibling rivalry. Throw into the pot a doomed former expedition, the route of which the protagonist and his party seem to be retracing, and you have the perfect setting for a ripping interwar yarn haunted by the failures of the past.

Paver’s first-person narrative is pacey and engaging, and whereas I normally find stories written in the present tense – as most of this is – somewhat distracting, I found that in this instance it didn’t grate. This would seem to have been an experiment on her part, for as in Dark Matter, her subsequent novel – Wakenhyrst – returned to using the more conventional past tense. Then again, she may employ such a device in her writing for younger readers which I have not read.

It is often said to be ‘the human spirit’ or ‘the spirit of adventure’ that spurs the followers of the alpinist creed in pursuit of their objectives, and it is the lost spirit of a previous doomed mountaineer, part of an earlier expedition to conquer Kanchenjunga, that lingers on its treacherous slopes. Both this earlier expedition, and the one outlined in the book, are fictitious, but such attempts were made on the mountain during the early twentieth century. One indeed – that of 1905 – included the occult charlatan Aleister Crowley, then aged twenty-nine, whose arrogance and brutality alienated his fellow members of the expedition. The man even had the temerity to abandon them and run off with the remaining funds when disaster struck killing a number of Sherpas. But that is by the by, for Crowley and his confederates do not make an appearance in Thin Air.  

Overall, Thin Air is narrated with a convincing verve and sense of period, with a mouldering rucksack effectively transformed into an object of terror. If you should enjoy novel-length ghost stories, then I recommend this without hesitation. Thin Air may be purchased from Amazon here

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