Abacus £6.99 (365pp). £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Change In Altitude, By Anita Shreve
Friday 23 April 2010
Since the publication of her 1998 novel, The Pilot's Wife, Anita Shreve's doom-laden romances have attracted a dedicated following. Here she abandons her usual setting, the chilly shores of New England, for the heat of East Africa, showing herself a more versatile writer in the process.
It's the mid-Seventies, and American newly-weds, Patrick and Margaret, have arrived in Nairobi where Patrick is working long hours as a hospital doctor. Jomo Kenyatta is in power, but politics will only prove incidental to the plot. Unable to find a home of their own, they end up lodging with British ex-pats, Diana and Arthur, and their two children. Over dinner and brandies it's decided that the two couples, along with a Dutch husband and wife, Saartje and Willem van Buskirk, should climb Mount Kenya. The expedition is a demanding one and they first embark on a practice hike in the Ngong Hills.
Margaret's sense of being an outsider intensifies as she finds herself attacked by red ants, burnt by the sun and left breathless by the lack of oxygen. It's Arthur, rather than her increasingly remote husband, Patrick, who recognises her plight - his flirtatious attentions provoking the story's central drama.
From plane crashes to one-night stands, the ripple effects of a single act are a familiar narrative device in Shreve's fiction. Afficianados of the author's work will already scent disaster in the wings. When the group next assembles a few weeks later for the actual ascent, marital tensions are high. At her best at narrative thrills and spills, Shreve has us on the edge of our seats as the six climbers inch their way through mud, ice and scree to the final summit. When one of the party slips to their death, the blame-game proper begins.
In contrast, the second part of the novel feels understandably anti-climatic. The mountain-top tragedy evolves into a tamer story of a marriage under pressure. Haunted by their role in the incident, Patrick and Margaret are unable to re-capture the magic of their early days together. Margaret, in an attempt to win back her husband swans around in silk negligees and mixes champagne cocktails, but her efforts at appeasement are spurned. Lonely and bored, she applies for a job as a photographer working for an opposition-run newspaper.
Shreve, who herself worked as a magazine journalist in Nairobi , uses Margaret's new job to shed light on the everyday realities of life during the last days of Kenyatta. Shocked by the violence and brutalities of local politics, she seeks comfort in the company of her colleague Rafiq, a British-educated journalist with "light-brown" skin and "distinctly European" features. Pretty enough to be exotic and well-spoken enough to be safe, he seems to offer a solution.
Despite Shreve's well-observed portraits of post-colonial types, particularly the entitled alpha male, her heroine's search for the "real Africa" proves a cliched and curiously naive affair. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the novel is that several of its love stories are left hanging and incomplete.
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