Monday 5 December 2016

Book Review: Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Last Updated: 16 May 2024

Thin Air by Michelle Paver book cover

AD* | 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 at 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'm a big fan of Michelle Paver's children's books, but Thin Air is her fast novel aimed at an older audience which I have read. I also love a gripping supernatural tale and good historical fiction, so this book, which combined all three of the above, was always bound to be a winner for me!

The book starts off as a simple first-person account of a historic mountaineering expedition. Interesting enough, but then along comes the supernatural twist. It's one of those slow-moving yet utterly gripping supernatural themes, almost more suited to a horror chiller than a mountaineering adventure. The pace is just right, slow enough to keep gathering tension until the figurative peak is reached towards the end. The story itself surprised me, too. It was clear that we were building towards a climax, but I found the ending to be unpredictable - I certainly didn't expect what happened!

I've always said that Michelle Paver is a master storyteller, and this book only further exemplifies that. From the first page to the very last it grips you, making you want to read on to find out what happens in the end. The prose is lovely to read too, descriptive whilst still being uncluttered and to the point. The character of Stephen is the perfect narrator - as a doctor, he is well-suited to the writing style achieved as he is observant yet clinical, even to the very end.

I also found Thin Air very interesting from a historical point of view. I have to confess that I don't know a lot about mountaineering or this part of the world, so the historical attitudes of the party towards the local people came as quite a shock. It's clear that Paver knows her stuff, and the wealth of research that must have been undertaken is clearly evident in the level of detail present throughout.

Rating: 4 stars

Thin Air is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned).

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* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below! 

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