Thin Air: A Ghost Story

Written by Michelle Paver
Review by Douglas Kemp

1935 in the Himalayas, and Dr. Stephen Pearce is part of a small party of climbers that are to attempt the hitherto unscaled mountain of Kanchenjunga, the third highest summit in the world. They are following in the footsteps of a notorious failed attempt of 1906, led by Edmund Lyell, and which resulted in the deaths of most of the party. Whilst in Darjeeling Stephen Pearce meets a member of that 1906 climb, Charles Tennant, a curiously irascible, but frightened old man, who lives in constant sight of the mountain that caused him to lose both of his feet to frostbite. Pearce is escaping from a broken engagement in London, and has been invited to form part of the expedition by his older brother Kits as the medical officer. While Stephen Pearce climbed the Alps in his youth, he is certainly not sufficiently acclimatised to tackle such a testing peak.

The climb is indeed an immense challenge, fraught with danger and difficulties, and the breathtaking beauties and associated horrors of the mountainous range are superbly described by the author. Pearce begins to notice some rather unusual things, but he (and the reader) cannot be sure if these unaccountable phenomena are caused by altitude sickness, or by something more malevolent and frightening. The sense of menace builds nicely to an agreeably shocking climax. The author provides lots of useful background information, to make for a most delightful, well-written and entertaining read.