Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Spooktastic Reads 2021 19th to 31st October
Artwork by Olga Yastremska from; banner courtesy of imyril of


It is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is a last-minute replacement on an expedition to Kangchenjunga, third highest peak in the world. Twenty-nine years ago, the Lyell expedition met with misfortune on the mountain, but now this new group of men intend to follow Lyell’s route and achieve the summit. They’re a small team: Major Cotterell is the expedition leader; Kits, Stephen’s older brother, is their gun man and best climber; Garrard, Kits’ closest friend, is in charge of communications; McLellan is responsible for the porters and supplies; and Stephen is the team’s doctor. And they are accompanied by ‘only’ sixty porters, local men and women who will carry they supplies and their dispatches up and down the mountain.


Naturally, things do not go smoothly. It wouldn’t be a tale of terror if they did. What I found most impressive about Paver’s ghost story is that this small group of men are not dogged by an unexpected amount of bad luck. She keeps events tightly under control, always just on the right side of reasonable, nearly always possible to explain away. And this meticulous storytelling somehow makes everything that much more terrifying.

Stephen is our eyes and ears on the journey. We experience his excitement, not only for the expedition, but also for having escaped London, and imminent marriage. In fact, he’s left a right stink in his wake, having upped and left only a week before the big day, telling his fiancée while at a dinner given by her grandmother, (no matter how many times Stephen implies that his brother is the arsehole, I’m pretty sure he’s just as much of one himself). He cites a fear of becoming like his older brother – and it’s not hard to see why, Kits is a massively self-absorbed, spoilt snob – but he is also caught up in a constant competition with him, and the two snipe at each other increasingly as the story unfolds. Much of the early tension in the book is down to the tensions within the group, caused by sibling rivalry and class difference as much as by personality clashes between the five men.

Which is only an echo of the strains that preceded them in the Lyell expedition. As Stephen becomes increasingly aware of “something bad” on the mountain, so he/we learn(s) that the official story told by Edmund Lyell in his book Bloody But Unbowed was not the whole truth. This book has played a large role in Kits and Stephen’s shared childhood and in their enthusiasm for mountaineering. It is interesting that, while Kits still reads it regularly, Stephen hasn’t since he was a boy, and when he does, borrowing his brother’s copy, he is struck by Lyell’s arrogance, snobbery and contempt. It’s a sign of how different the two brothers are (although I’m still not absolving Stephen of being an arse), but it’s also a neat little trick by Paver: Stephen’s feelings about Lyell were almost a perfect mirror of my feelings about Stephen, Kits and company, in particular for their obnoxious racism towards the very people on whom they depend, namely the group of sixty porters and guides helping them up the mountain. The past really is an, often unforgivably, foreign country.

I hope it’s not too obvious that I’m avoiding any mention of the “something bad”? I’m pretty sure that spoiling a ghost story is a cardinal sin and this aspect of the novel is so perfectly done that by the end I was chilled through. I guess I could drop just a few mentions about some non-spoilery contributors to the scary, however. Like Cedric the dog, who’s wonderful from the moment he bounds into the expedition, flag-like tail flying; (in her Author’s Note Paver mentions that the mountaineer Paul Bauer was accompanied to approximately twenty-four thousand feet by his dog Wastl, which makes Cedric a perfectly acceptable, as well as very welcome, addition to the story). He’s also an excellent barometer for weirdness and you just know that when the dog runs, so should everyone else.

Then there’s the atmosphere. My favourite thing about reading Thin Air was being able to experience something I will absolutely definitely not otherwise have experienced, (because no way am I going up anything). The mountain is a place sitting just outside of the everyday world, virtually untouched by people, remote but unignorable. Paver shows us both the stunning silence and the staggering noise of the mountain, it’s sudden changes in weather and temperature, and the effects of its lower air pressure on both body and mind. Kangchenjunga is a snow-piled beauty and a ragged-toothed giant, not menacing in and of itself, but certainly not a place in which to feel watched, trapped or hunted.

Finally, there’s the rucksack. Holy cow, the rucksack! Have I ever been that scared by an inanimate object before? Nope. How did Paver make the rucksack so absolutely blooming terrifying? I’ve no idea. Will I be reading Paver’s other chilly ghost story, Dark Matter? Well, she terrified me with a rucksack, so heck yes.

Just as soon as I’ve got my breath back.




  1. Now there’s my kind of review for this kind of fiction, you lay out the premise, name the key players, conjure up the atmosphere and hint at more to come. I’ve still to read any Paver and this might be the one for me to start with, thanks!

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