By Valerie Sayers
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 26, 2009
A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE
By Anita Shreve
Little, Brown. 307 pp. $26.99
Anita Shreve is a best-selling novelist in large part because of the economical way she builds suspense. In the very first line of "A Change in Altitude," a young white doctor who has arrived in Nairobi to conduct research, announces, "We're climbing Mount Kenya." In those four words to his wife, he suggests the story's central questions: Why is Patrick telling Margaret, with her scant climbing experience, rather than asking her? Can the young American couple rise to the physical and psychological challenge? And what will this climb allow them to discover about Kenya and about themselves?
The novel, set in the 1970s, is told from Margaret's angle and, because she is a photographer, that perspective is often visual and sharply focused. It's clear from the beginning that she's especially sensitive to those who claim authority, and that includes all five of her climbing partners: She and Patrick, accompanied by a guide and porters, take on Mount Kenya with two European couples well accustomed to wielding the authority of post-Mau Mau white colonials. Patrick and Margaret's landlord, Arthur, is the one who has suggested the climb, and Margaret has certainly noticed the proprietary attention he pays her. Arthur's athletic wife, Diana, has noticed, too.
Shreve moves relentlessly from plot point to plot point, and Arthur's frank interest, Diana's jealousy and Margaret's inability to keep up with the other climbers create plenty of momentum to keep readers panting alongside. Mount Kenya's debilitating altitude sickness, with the ongoing possibility of delusional behavior, renders the atmosphere fraught with tension.
Shreve's prose is workaday here and the dialogue is occasionally stiff, but she knows how to keep a reader engaged. Sometimes, Margaret's interior monologue does a good job of explaining a bit of action: "After she had stumbled a couple of times, she noticed that the cook, whose name she didn't know (whose name she didn't know!), stood near her in case she fell badly." More often, however, Margaret's thoughts are separated from the action and tend to state her dilemmas baldly. In the middle of the night, she wakes in their mountain shelter to find rats crawling over her, and allows Arthur to comfort her by taking her hand. The passage describing the morning after seems designed to reassure those readers who are a little slow on the uptake: "She wondered who else had seen her hand in Arthur's, and if that explained the angry voices outside."
Margaret and Patrick are thwarted in their attempt to reach the summit when the jealous Diana breaks away from the group as they cross a treacherous glacier. The ensuing accident haunts Margaret for the rest of the novel. As she sorts through her own guilt and resentment at being blamed, she finds herself sexually attracted to Rafiq, a young journalist of Pakistani and Welsh descent. Rafiq's brown skin (but not too brown) embodies Kenya's exotic appeal, and Margaret's reflection that there is "something inscrutable" about this man is obtuse, to say the least. She is, however, attracted to him for other reasons, too, chief among them his political and moral sensibility.
The sexual threats to Patrick and Margaret's marriage are played out against a series of yet more ominous threats: Thieves steal their car, furniture and research notes; Margaret overhears a conversation about a mass grave that hides massacred protesters; Arthur and Diana's servant is viciously raped. The landscapes Margaret is drawn to photograph are spectacular, but fire ants, buffaloes, leopards and snakes all surprise her (the leopard and snake, appearing in tandem, are perhaps two natural threats too many).
She decides to concentrate, ultimately, on photographing the people of Kenya, and her decision to take a newspaper job provides some of the novel's richest material. She leads Rafiq to former servants so that he can write about the harsh privations they endure as urban migrant workers separated from their villages and families. And when Patrick takes Margaret along to a psychiatric hospital where "many of the women suffered from hallucinations and delusions, while others could not control their bodies," her desire to photograph them is fueled by her shock and outrage at their treatment -- and perhaps by concern over her own dependent condition.
By the end, Margaret's personal crisis crowds out the novel's consideration of the political crises in East Africa or, for that matter, the moral challenges facing white visitors like herself. Shreve packs an impressive amount of sympathetic and intelligent detail into this narrative, but ultimately the novel is more interested in Margaret's gooey self-discovery and the resolution of her romantic dilemma. But Shreve's introduction to recent Kenyan history, however romanticized, may lead readers, like Margaret, to learn more about the country's rich ethnic cultures and ongoing political struggles.
Sayers, author of five novels, is professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.