PrintE-mail Written by James Evans

It’s the mid-1930s and an expedition is due to set out in hopes of reaching the summit of Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas.  Dr Stephen Pearce is a medic and relatively capable climber, drafted in as a last minute replacement to his brother’s climbing party, and it is through Pearce that we experience the events that take place.  As with many seemingly unconquerable mountains of that region, a number of ill-fated attempts have taken on the challenge and failed, and one in particular, the Lyell assault of some 30-years earlier, hangs heavy over this new endeavour.  

Early on Pearce encounters ominous forewarnings via a survivor of the Lyell team, as well as struggling to temper his Western rationalism against the superstitions of the locals who will act as porters for the group.  Running from a misjudged and now broken engagement back in England, not even these warnings, or his fractious relationship with his wealthy, arrogant sibling and his own fears that he is not a good enough climber put Pearce off the mission ahead.  Aware of the effects of altitude sickness and the dangers of climbing, Dr Pearce clings to this ‘enlightened’ reasoning even as unnerving and unsettling events begin to suggest that the native superstition is not unfounded, and something is waiting on the mountain to punish these men for their hubris.

Having actually been to Kanchenjunga herself, Paver vividly but economically establishes the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the journey.  Paver’s research into mountaineering at that time, as well as the region and customs of the people, shines through in a strong and convincing tone.  With Pearce as narrator, Paver uses his commentary to effectively and quickly build the other characters in the book and create a convincing history for the lack of love between the two brothers.  Mixing in references to real climbers and expeditions of that time period helps to understand what drives the men to push on despite setbacks.

There’s no obvious shocks here but instead a sustained, creeping dread as the likelihood increases that it’s not all in Pearce’s mind and that they are heading for tragedy just like Lyell and company.  Subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’ this is very much the classic approach, concentrating on mood and subtlety to create chills in the reader.  It could be argued the story itself is slight, but even if so, that matters little when told with such confidence and ability.

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