Map of Blue Book Balloon

4 October 2016

Thin Air

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Thin Air
Michelle Paver
Orion, 6 October 2016
HB, 240pp
I'm grateful for an advance e-copy of this book through NetGalley.

This book makes a perfect companion piece to Paver's previous ghost story for adults, Dark Matter. Superficially, they are very similar - both are about men (this is the Imperial 30s: yes, it's all men) pitting themselves against a harsh environment (the Arctic cold or the thin air of the high Himalyas) in a very late Empire spirit of derring-do the culmination of which was perhaps Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's successful ascent alongside the 1953 Coronation.

And both ponder how the dark, and the cold, and the essence of desperate men driven to extremes, might not let in something frightful - providing fruitful ground for real, spine tingling horror.

There are other similarities too, such as the presence of an outsider (in the case of Thin Air, the protagonist, Stephen) or relative outsider on the tightly knit group of Boys' Own types. But most of all, the note of a true horror story - compared with a mere ghost story - which is that the horror never really ends. This is encapsulated here by Tennant, survivor of an earlier expedition to 'conquer' Kanchenjunga who in early scenes is clearly haunted by something he met on that trip.

It's all done brilliantly and works well as a ghost story. Stephen is climbing with his brother Kits as part of a expedition to reach a previously unclimbed peak. Earlier expeditions have met disaster - how, and why, is slowly unravelled as the story unfolds, building tension (Paver uses a technique of studied vagueness - it's not immediately clear for example exactly what the composition of one of those expeditions was, making its members already somewhat ghostlike and blending reality with fiction). As the mountaineers approach the lower slopes, they seem to delight in ridiculing the superstitions and beliefs of the local people they describe as 'coolies' (another foreshadowing of trouble to come!)

This is one with the general attitude to 'natives'. Stephen, the expedition's doctor, speculates about what makes these people so able to bear the harsh climate and high altitude, but he discusses them in terms that might almost fit animals. The expedition leader has boots for them, but withholds these till as late as he can - and their views about the best way to proceed are pretty much discounted, indeed a number of times they're effectively compared to children. Paver is good on this attitude of late Imperial arrogance (pride coming before a fall, of course - the book is set in the mid 30s so this stuff had very little time left to run). Another way this is underscored is the military language used to describe the expedition - the mountain is assaulted, besieged, attacked.

The presence of these essential helpers also illustrates something which I hadn't really appreciated - how expeditions of two or three celebrated men reaching some peak are in reality the work of countless others, dozens or even hundreds of climbers, shuttling up and down what are described here as 'highways' i.e. surveyed routes on the mountain, piling up stores at the successive camps. It really wasn't (isn't) the heroic, solitary effort you might think - even if the 'sahibs' (as they describe themselves) do, as here, reek of high Edwardian amateurism. We're told of the disdain for oxygen bottles and 'climbing irons' and of how the white men disport themselves in their 'canvas hats, motoring helmets, cricket sweater, fishermen's jerseys, Varsity mufflers, breeches, trousers, gaiters and puttees'. There's a comedy in this, even if a dark comedy, almost as though a  bunch of PG Wodehouse's characters has wandered into the wrong book.

That only serves to highlight the tension and despair, of course, as things begin to go wrong. I won't say too much about that because I don't want to give away the story, but I think there is a sense in which what comes down on the expedition is a reflection of what they take up the mountain: Stephen's hatred of his brother, for example, perhaps stirs something up that is sleeping amidst the ice and snow, a legacy of that previous expedition Tennant was part of.

In that respect, while comparable to Dark Matter, this is I think very much the better book - in a way which I can't explain in detail, the ecology of its horror is much more complete: while lacking none of the horror of the other book, it is all more satisfying. And in exploring (no pun intended!) Imperialist attitudes and their interplay with the past and future, Paver makes some serious points about the wider story that was the Empire - perhaps even that, like any true horror story, we are still haunted by it.

Finally, if, like me, you first heard of Kanchenjunga through Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, and you would like to know more about why those kids named their unclimbable peak after it, then you'll find all you could want to know here and perhaps even gain a little admiration for those who first climbed these peaks - despite their all too visible flaws.

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