Miracle of miracles, a book I didn’t pick up solely for the cover (though that played a part). It was early November, and I’d been wanting to read more ghost stories since having read only one through the entire month of October. So I picked up Thin Air idly, intrigued by the fact that it was both a ghost story and an adventure story. I’ll try to keep this review fairly free of spoilers.
There’s nothing less realistic (or appealing) than a piece of historical fiction in which the main character starts out as a time-accurate racist and then magically becomes progressive without actually interacting with any of the groups of people they’ve been racist against. This is usually a clumsy ploy by the author to make their character more appealing while giving them some (usually much-needed) development, tempered by the fact that the author doesn’t actually know how-or want-to write anyone who isn’t white.
Safe to say this is something that Paver does quite skillfully. At the beginning of the story the protagonist views their indigenous guides with ignorance and mistrust. He’s also someone who has never climbed a himalaya before. So after spending some time with Nima, the Sherpa character, who guides him the whole way, essentially ensuring he doesn’t immediately die on the mountain, he has a quite plausible change of heart. By the end of the book he is (apart from the other changes he undergoes) more aware of race and class divides and less forgiving of those at the top of the chain. This succeeds in making his character all the more likeable in comparison to the other white characters, and even more relatable as a narrator. I’ve read POV chapters of characters who were racist or sexist or otherwise bigoted: it’s difficult and distracts from the overall narrative. The reader has to engage with the narration in order to understand the story, but that aversion-while effective in creating a morally nuanced story-tends to muddle things.
So one of my favorite things about the book was the protagonist: not the ghost, though I loved the way Paver describes the thing following the protagonist, the way the dead man’s feelings of terror, isolation and loneliness leach over into Stephen make for a very effective haunting, and are, I think, an underutilized tool for writers of ghost stories. But Stephen, the protagonist, was not a posturing hero like his childhood mountaineering idol, but an outsider, in something of a disgrace. This aspect of disgrace is often a feature of these kinds of stories (see Ian McGuire’s The North Water), I think this has something to do with the fact that the kind of disgrace or alienation felt by these characters makes it more plausible for them to seek to flee human company and society and get in over their heads, be it by their own (impaired) judgment or from being chased out of society.
Stephen is a doctor, sceptic and self-proclaimed “man of science”, and so it was even more satisfying to watch his progressive rationalization of more and more ridiculous explanations for the phenomena he’s experiencing. He goes from scornful to dismissive of to reliant on the omens and talismans he is given, especially by Nima, and as he develops as a character in one way he regresses into neurosis in another. Stories of physical and emotional trauma such as these are effective at plumbing the depths of the human psyche, especially how it behaves under stress, and a big part of the reason why I find such stories so compelling.
My overall impressions of the book are that it is gripping, and very fast paced. This may have something to do with the nature of the prose and the subject material: Paver doesn’t include too much detail about the trips to and from the mountain. In addition the nature of the climb itself is fairly monotonous: large swathes of time are omitted and only when they are pivotal to the plot are the details of climbing and daily life on the mountain included. The reader doesn’t get bogged down with detail which could distract from the main plot, which serves to make the story fast-paced and always to the point. It also meant that I could read it in only a couple sittings, which is rare, for me.
Thin Air is the perfect book for anyone looking for a quick, bone-chilling (in more ways than one) read, but who want something a little more intellectual than the everyday ghost story fare. It is available to buy here, and at your local bookstore.