“Thin Air” by Michelle Paver (Review)

{ my rating: ★★★★★ }

Not all ghost stories are created equal. Thin Air by Michelle Paver does more than its tag makes you believe it will.

It is 1935. Steven Pierce would rather suffer guilt the rest of his days than turn into his older brother Kits, which is why he suddenly breaks off quite an accomplished engagement. Doctor meets rich woman from a sophisticated large family and gets along well with…why not tie the knot? Because there is this reoccurring nightmare of snow burying him alive, that is if he were the man inside the snowglobe his then fiancée had gifted him.

Thanks to the undeniable talent of Daniel Weyman throughout, whose performance as each character made the audiobook experience so gripping that I felt I was listening to a top tier audio drama rather than an audiobook, Thin Air sounds like cotton candy to the brain. Strange comparison but the mingling of dry British colloquialisms and culture (embodied in an array of distinct voices by Mr. Weyman) combined with the eerie horror of an atmospheric piece makes it sound so pleasant and feel so addictive that there is no other way to describe it.

The pacing is a true marvel. Despite the common conduits Ms. Paver used, like wind howling and odd shadows moving, the well paced build up is what makes them feel still fresh in her hands. Prose may a major part of what makes or breaks a novel for me, but watching plot and storylines unfold with such meticulous control is thrilling to experience. 

That control comes to heavily influence the development of characters, not just plot. Slowly but surely, Steven takes on the identity of being a character that’s not just a doctor just as Kits becomes more than the arrogant expedition leader and older brother. Most touching is what Ms. Paver reveals about character flaws and weaknesses between the lines. Not many siblings would bully their little brother after watching them have a mental breakdown now, would they? But attention to detail would help you see that the bullying is a byproduct of shock, worry, and a strange way of expressing love.

As for the creeping fear woven into Steven’s reoccurring nightmare, that was the first inkling that made me believe I was listening to a five-star novel because it can be interpreted in two ways: in the literal sense and/or in an emotional sense. 

When considered, if one knows the context of the novel, which is about a group of Englishmen trying to become the first to expedition to the summit of Kangchenjunga, then it’s possible that Steven and his crew can be buried alive by snow on the way up. Man versus Nature is a constant conflict which only intensifies the higher the expeditioners climb, but the lore of the native people who accompany them insists that Nature is tied to a Deity that lives at the summit, whom in the past seemed more than pleased to bury those who tried to trespass onto his property. Logically, chances of being buried alive by snow increase whether Steven and his crew believes in the lore or not because in the 1900s, climbing to a summit took a larger team, of which only a portion would survive to tell the tale.

However, Thin Air is more about characters and consequences than plot and climax no matter how well developed the latter are, and there is no dynamic more important than the antagonism between Steven and Kits. The clever part is that both of these interpretations are proven to an extent, yet the crux is that Steven wants to be Kits as much as he doesn’t want to be Kits. 

Marrying his ex-fiancée would have thrust Steven into the privileged, important life Kits has with his wealthy in laws, which is why he backs out of the trap last minute. Being caged up in formal engagements and galas is something Kits’ ego thrives on, but living a life so full of self importance seems to be equivalent to suicide for Steven. Yet the expedition to conquer Kangchenjunga is what Kits has dreamed of since he was old enough to read about other popular mountaineers who tried. Despite how much Steven wants to fight to become his own person, confident in his own skin and profession, that lure of surety and ambition his brother emits becomes too strong to ignore, and so he joins in the quest as the doctor to tend to them all on the way up even though he could be doing much more important things with his talents, such as treating the natives. No matter how much he tries to stand far from Kits in all his [self-destructive] glory, Steven’s subconscious manifests the pressure his older brother gives him anyways. And the only way to escape is through a tragedy he’d much rather never consider.

The single problem I had with Thin Air was that the climax betrayed the structure and control of the chapters that came before it. Whereas scenes up until then had a point of introduction/re-introduction, middle, and fade out/teaser, the climax came all at once and then ended with a jarring abruptness. What dread had been built up to that point vanished at the comical absurdity of a major death. It might have been better handled if Steven’s scenes of him losing time and reality to nightmares had been better balanced with comradery scenes inside tents, but instead Steven gets left behind while a handful of Kits favorite pals journey further. The separation between characters is never bridged back together enough to make the climax feel as tragic as it was supposed to be.

Overall, the most major issue I had with this novel does not come close to making its most brilliant features dull. The prose is atmospheric in a way not very different from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which means that not only does the inanimate feel animate as the team climbs the mount, but it feels alive and feral, so nearly tangible that I could imagine a ghost crawling up the mountain, and I could feel the constant biting of the snow upon the expeditioners faces. Therefore, it is effective in all the ways it had to be as a ghost story, though it is more than just that. 

For those who enjoy slow building horror and for those who have a soft spot for stories that get under your skin, Thin Air is a perfect recommendation.


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