Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Born in Malawi to a Belgian mother and a father who ran the tiny 'Nyasaland Times', Michelle moved to the UK when she was three. She was brought up in Wimbledon and, following a Biochemistry Degree from Oxford University, she became a partner in a big City law firm. She gave up the City to follow her long-held dream of becoming a writer.

Successfully published as an adult author, the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness ("Wolf Brother") were her first books for younger readers, followed by her brilliant 5-part series set in the bronze age, Gods and Warriors.

On the adult side, her first ghost story, DARK MATTER, was a UK bestseller and won massive praise from reviewers and readers.

After gaining a degree in Biochemistry from Oxford University, she became a partner in a City law firm, but eventually gave that up to write full-time.

The hugely successful Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series arose from Michelle's lifelong passion for animals, anthropology and the distant past - as as well as an encounter with a large bear in a remote valley in southern California. To research the books, Michelle has traveled to Finland, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Arctic Canada and the Carpathian Mountains. She has slept on reindeer skins, swum with wild orca (killer whales), and got nose-to-nose with polar bears - and, of course, wolves.
In 1935, young medic Stephen Pearce travels to India to join an expedition with his brother, Kits. The elite team of five will climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain and one of mountaineering's biggest killers. No one has scaled it before, and they are, quite literally, following in the footsteps of one of the most famous mountain disasters of all time - the 1907 Lyell Expedition.

Five men lost their lives back then, overcome by the atrocious weather, misfortune and 'mountain sickness' at such high altitudes. Lyell became a classic British hero when he published his memoir, Bloody, But Unbowed, which regaled his heroism in the face of extreme odds. It is this book that will guide this new group to get to the very top.

As the team prepare for the epic climb, Pearce's unease about the expedition deepens. The only other survivor of the 1907 expedition, Charles Tennant, warns him off. He hints of dark things ahead and tells Pearce that, while five men lost their lives on the mountain, only four were laid to rest.

But Pearce is determined to go ahead and complete something that he has dreamed of his entire life. As they get higher and higher, and the oxygen levels drop, he starts to see dark things out of the corners of his eyes. As macabre mementoes of the earlier climbers turn up on the trail, Stephen starts to suspect that Charles Lyell's account of the tragedy was perhaps not the full story...
I admit I read this superb ghost story in one sitting - it's short enough to do so comfortably. The tension ratchets up notch by notch until it's almost unbearable by the novel's climax.
This story has everything. It's 1935 and a mismatched band of mountain climbers are planning to climb the third highest peak in the Himalaya, Kangchenjunga via the treacherous route that has previously claimed many lives. No-one has yet reached the summit of this mountain, called 'Big Stone' by the superstitious Sherpas. Our narrator is Stephen, a doctor and alpinist who is a late replacement, joining his bold brother Kits and the rest of the team including Cedric the dog. It's clear from the start that there will be sibling rivalry between them, particularly on Kits' part. Add in the mountain's legends and climb history and we're set for a tense adventure even before they make base camp and experience the effects of oxygen deprivation. Could everything that happens afterwards be the effects of altitude sickness and the thin air? Or are there really ghosts?
From the jungle trek from Darjeeling to Camp Four at 22000 feet, Paver shows great story-telling skill as we travel with our narrator Stephen as the tension never lets up for one minute. Masterful and breath-taking!
Thin Air is so full of atmosphere, so absorbing, that it develops its own character very quickly.I do love a good ghost story. And this? This was a VERY good one. Horror can be a pretty tricky genre to balance, especially when involving the paranormal. As a reader, I can't stand too much of a build-up with very little climax, but I also don't want supernatural shenanigans flung in my face left, right and centre. Atmosphere and happenings need to be well-timed and intertwined successfully in order to really give me the creeps, and Paver really pulled it off. 
I am really sorry I will never be able to read it for the first time again. It was a precious experience. I definitely recommend it to everyone who gets their hands on it! This is not gore-fest horror – it's all done with things half-glimpsed and subject to interpretation. As we learn more about the history of the previous expedition, the story turns dark and cold indeed, and Paver feeds us the information bit by bit, creating a rising feeling of dread that tingles the spine nicely. By this stage the expedition has reached about 22,000 feet and each of the men is feeling the effects of altitude, so that even the narrator is not sure if what he is experiencing might be a result of hallucination. Paver is excellent at using the extreme weather and physical danger to add to the psychological terror and paranoia that has taken hold of Stephen's mind.4FOXGIVEN