Thin Air by Michelle Paver reviewed

Thin Air Book Cover Thin Air
Michelle Paver
October 6, 2016

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...

This book, Thin Air by Michelle Paver, is in essence a ghost story in a mountaineering setting. It’s about an inter wars expedition who are attempting to climb Kangchenjunga. The proposed route is one used by a pre war expedition which ended in disaster. Two brothers are on the team, however they have very different personalities and approaches to the climb. Dr Stephen Pearce is a doctor and a late arrival to the team. His brother Kits has been involved in the attempt from the start and has been instrumental in getting his brother on the team. They come from a climbing background.

It’s apparent early on that the previous failed attempt to climb Kangchenjunga probably has something hidden about it. The new expedition intends to follow the old expeditions route. Porters and others are less than happy about that. The writing is easy to read and, for me, gives a feel of an early Himalaya expedition. The apparent “ghosts” of the Lyell expedition seem to lurk around this one. The atmosphere is well evoked by the writing even if it feels slightly simplistic at times. The main characters (including Cedric!) are well enough written and were credible to me. I’ve read other books non fiction on early expeditions. However I’m not certain if it is completely in keeping with the way an inter wars expedition would have been narrated. That said the author’s reading on the subject has been extensive so it is more likely that this issue is mine rather than the book. Ultimately the question is “Is there something about the previous expedition that has not been made public?”. Discover that for yourself in this largely entertaining book.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review