For Dr Stephen Pearce, it’s a boyhood dream come true: he’s joining an expedition attempting to scale one of the world’s unconquered peaks. But Kanchenjunga has the reputation of a killer, and Stephen will face its deadly secrets alone…
I read Thin Air as one of last year’s Spooktastic Reads, although sadly I was far too busy to get a review written at the time. Billed as ‘the most chilling and compelling ghost story of the year’, it comes from the pen of Michelle Paver who in the past thoroughly creeped me out with her Arctic ghosts in Dark Matter. It’s fair to say the bar was set quite high.
It’s also fair to say that October was an unsettled reading month for me. I was exhausted, stressed and unsure whether the light I could see ahead was the end of my tunnel or an onrushing train. Sometimes, that’s the perfect state for losing yourself to a good read – this year, I might have been better off sticking to the greater comfort and lower demands of rereads.
All of which is a polite way of saying I found Thin Air average at best, but as I was hauling almost as much baggage as its characters, your mileage may vary. On the other hand, October’s circumstances didn’t reduce my pleasure in The Poison Song or Hunger Makes The Wolf, so… perhaps not.
Still: there’s no denying that Thin Air is a well-constructed, chilling tale. Michelle Paver is a solid craftswoman who gets right to work on atmosphere: the narrative is seeded with ominous hints from the start. A visit to the house of a survivor of Lyell’s doomed attempt is harrowing; the trinkets in his study eerily suggestive. The expedition is overshadowed by the awful histories of those who went before them, driven by ambition and defined by little cruelties. Once up the mountain, Paver evokes the isolation and the terrifying conditions; by the time they shelter in an ice cave with a crack into a crevasse in the back wall, the environmental horror was off the scale (I’m really bad with heights; I was actively working not to imagine a great deal).
Stephen is a last-minute replacement for an injured climber, invited by virtue of being the expedition leader’s younger brother. The Pearce brothers have a fractious relationship at best, not so much carrying chips on their shoulders as whole trees. Their bitter assessments of one another are driven by spite and inferiority – and yet often accurate. Their companions are the sort of bluff upper-class colonials you would expect for the period: jolly good, stiff upper lip and don’t rock the boat old chap, looking down on their Sherpa companions and keen to beat the blasted Germans to the peak.
Their attitudes inevitably set my teeth on edge, however accurate the pastiches. Only men this pickled in their own exceptionalism would think they were ready to ‘lay siege’ to the most dangerous mountain in the world when they’ve never done anything more serious than a day’s hiking in the Alps. On the other hand, those same attitudes make them perfect victims for furious ghosts they’ll never believe in, so I settled in to cheer them on to their inevitable unfortunate deaths by misadventure.
Without wanting to dive deeply into spoilers, Stephen is a mess from the very beginning. In addition to his feud with Kits, his nerves are papered over with the thinnest veneer of rationalism. The story is related entirely as his inner monologue, a looping introspective ramble that veers between insecurity and affront to level-headed rationalism to an almost childlike need for reassurance as his terror mounts. And oh boy, does he get scared.
When things go wrong – because of course they go wrong – the question rapidly becomes whether it’s because they’re being haunted by a vengeful ghost or just being overconfident and making bad decisions. Is Stephen hallucinating or is there a dead man dogging their footsteps? As they climb ever higher and we get ever more evidence that Stephen’s judgement is impaired, can we trust his narrative at all?
I can’t deny that it’s a clever, nasty little tale. Sitting down to consider it all these months later, I appreciate it more in retrospect than I enjoyed it at the time. But here’s the rub: when you’re sold a book as a ghost story, having Paver ever-so-carefully toe the line that maybe it’s just altitude sickness and a guilty conscience wrong-footed me. The fault is in the advertising rather than the book – let’s face it, I love Cold Earth for playing exactly the same game – but I think I would have liked Thin Air a good deal better if it had either been less dedicated to ambiguity or not marketed as a ghost story (although there’s a question of who and when you think he’s being haunted, I suppose). And, um, well, if the body count had been higher. I really didn’t enjoy these characters, okay?