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A hauntingly, spine chilling epic of a book!
When I first starting reading this book, I felt as though it had been written just for me. A very odd thought I know but a few years ago I developed a bit of an obsessional interest in the Himalayas, particularly Everest and and have read a number of personal accounts of expeditions on Everest and other Himalyan peaks including the ones written in the 1920’s and 30’s.
The book is about a fictitious 1935 expedition up the Himalayan peak Kangchenjunga; the third highest mountain on earth and at that time unconquered
Four men and a number of Sherpas and natives set out from Darjeeling on the expedition. Two brothers are in the group, one of them Stephen Pearce a young doctor who was the medic of the party, the other his older brother Kits. The brothers don’t exactly get on and the dynamics between them lead to some tensions that aren’t really conducive to a harmonious mountain camp atmosphere. The leader of the expedition is McLellan, a former army officer. The other member is Cotterell, also a former army officer and a very close friend of Kits.
Mountaineering was very much a gentleman’s pastime. The First World War had claimed some fine mountaineers and like countless others, Cotterell who survived the trenches was affected by his experiences of war and death.
The two brothers Kits and Stephen had been brought up reading heroic tales of derring -do including the memoir Bloody, But Unbowed, written by Edward Lyell who led an ill-fated 1907 expedition up Kangchenjunga in which five men lost their lives. Lyell paints himself as a bit of a hero in the memoir. The book inspired their boyhood dreams and both took up mountaineering becoming good climbers, although Kits was the better of the two.
Shortly before their expedition 29 years after the Lyell expedition, Stephen meets Charles Tennant, the remaining survivor of that group, who warns him off and drops dark hints about all not being as it seemed on the Lyell expedition.
Mountain air, several thousand feet up or Thin Air hence the book title, can produce dramatic physical effects on the body which can affect the mind. Stephen starts to see things, often just a glimpse of a figure in the distance or an awareness of being watched or followed but he isn’t the only one who is spooked. Something is on the mountain with them and it isn’t altitude sickness that’s causing the strange occurrences.
Some discoveries lead to more and more fears from Stephen and nightmarish happenings. Who or what is up the mountain with them and what happened on the Lyell expedition. The truth when revealed is horrific and disturbing.
I loved this book and felt chilled throughout, not only from the weather conditions on the mountain but because of the nightmarish spookiness of it all. The superstitions and beliefs of the Sherpas add to the whole atmosphere
The end notes of sources used for research by the author are considerable and it’s clear that Michelle Paver has researched everything thoroughly, from the vernacular of the day where the natives and Sherpas who accompany them up the mountain are referred to as “coolies” to the type of clothing worn by mountaineers of that time plus the everyday minutiae of life on an expedition during that time period and for me that was an added joy in reading this book. Climbers in those days were not equipped in the way their contemporaries are today, they wore layers of good woollen cloth and warm winter gear not really wholly suitable for the conditions.
“Snuggled inside two eiderdown sleeping bags, wearing my Shetland balaclava and my sheepskin motoring cap with the ear-flaps tied under my chin….”
And also this one made me smile
“Garrard and Kits are also doing a vanishing act. It’s hard to tell them apart, both in their grey Grenfell cloth climbing suits with long tapes trailing from their hoods.”
I was really sorry when the book ended, I enjoyed it that much.
Thanks to the publishers Orion Prsss and NetGalley for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.