Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 365 pages; 2010.
Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures. Sadly, she seems to get pigeon-holed into “popular fiction” rather than “literary fiction” which means she rarely garners critical acclaim, and yet I find her body of work — 15 novels at last count — immensely impressive. Shreve knows how to pen a fast-moving narrative peopled with believable, usually flawed, characters, but her real strength lies in her ability to reinvent her style anew. She is not a one-trick pony; each book is vastly different to the previous one; and she seems equally adept at writing historical fiction as she does contemporary fiction.
A Change in Altitude, her latest paperback, is no exception. This book is set in the late 1970s and revolves around a newlywed couple, Margaret and Patrick, who move to Kenya from Boston. Patrick is a doctor; Margaret a newspaper photographer. Together they go on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya, accompanied by an older British couple (their landlords), and a Dutch couple. It’s supposed to be an adventure, a chance to experience the “real Africa”, but from the outset Margaret is clearly not confident about the trip (she lacks experience and fitness) but agrees to go because she loves her husband.
During the ascent, which is physically and mentally strenuous, a terrible accident occurs, which results in one of the party being killed. The rest of the novel looks at the impact of this death on Margaret and Patrick’s marriage, which is put under further strain by a series of robberies (their car is stolen and their house ransacked several times) and their complete inability to adapt to a strange, new culture.
Essentially the story is nothing more than a fairly dull domestic drama that plays out on foreign soil. Admittedly, I found that the second half of the book did not live up to the excitement of the first half in which every step of the mountain climb is spelt out in the manner of a psychological thriller. But after the accident, which occurs about a third of the way in, the narrative seems to lose momentum. Indeed, the book becomes radically different, as Shreve charts Margaret and Patrick’s relatively dreary lives in the aftermath of the expedition. The narrative pace only picks up again near the end when the pair decide to commemorate the first anniversary of the trek by climbing the mountain for the second time.
Even though A Change in Altitude is a quick, enjoyable and entertaining read (I particularly liked the section in which Margaret gets herself a job on the local newspaper), the characters are frustratingly unknowable throughout. Despite being written in the third person, Shreve never really reveals anyone’s motivations nor provides any inner dialogue. This means that Patrick remains a complete stranger, and Margaret is not much better. If anything, they both seem incredibly naive and immature, which is not helped by the implausible premise (which I won’t reveal, because it’s a plot spoiler) upon which their marriage flounders.
All up, A Change in Altitude is perfect fodder for those times when you just want a light read that won’t tax the brain matter too much. But if you are looking for something more intellectually stimulating with an African setting you might be better tackling Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.