A Change in Altitude, By Anita Shreve

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The Independent Culture

Since the runaway success of her 1998 novel The Pilot's Wife, Anita Shreve's doom-laden romances have dominated bestseller lists. In her 15th novel, she abandons her usual locale, the chilly shores of New England, for the heat of East Africa, showing herself a more expansive writer in the process.

American newlyweds Patrick and Margaret have just arrived in Nairobi, where Patrick is working long hours at a hospital. It's the mid-1970s and Kenyatta is still in power, though politics will prove only incidental to the plot. The young couple are persuaded by their landlords, expats Diana and Arthur, to join a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya. It's on the last leg of this hike that Diana – a woman in a hurry – breaks away from the group and plunges to her death.

From plane crashes to one-night stands, the ripple effects of a single act are a persistent theme in Shreve's fiction. Here she embeds the mountain-top tragedy into a larger story of a marriage under pressure. Haunted by their role in the accident, Patrick and Margaret are unable to recapture the happiness of their early days. At a loose end, and failing to re-seduce her husband with cocktails and a "white silk nightgown", Margaret decides to accept a job as a photographer for an opposition-run newspaper.

For Shreve, whose own salad days were spent working on a Nairobi-based magazine, this proves a useful way of packing in local colour and background detail. Though Margaret's search for the "real Africa" proves predictably pat, Shreve's waspish insights into the mindset of the colonial alpha-male lend the novel a sophisticated edge.

Margaret's journey wouldn't be complete without an integration of a more hands-on kind: she finds herself falling for a handsome Ugandan-Asian reporter called Rafiq. Sadly for her, and the reader, this lacklustre love affair never progresses beyond a snatched safari trip. Margaret may have acclimatised to her new home but, much like Shreve, she finds herself more suited to love in a cold climate.

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