Grief and awakening on Mt. Kenya
There comes a point in Anita Shreve’s latest novel, A Change in Altitude, when we start to wonder when the plagues are coming—the succession of unfortunate events that befall the protagonist are that bad. It would ruin the plot to describe exactly what she must withstand, but suffice it to say that there is death, looting, political corruption and strands of adultery. (Not to mention fire ants and acute mountain sickness.)
It is a testament to Shreve’s storytelling that this soap opera of disaster does not come off sounding contrived. In fact, prepare to cancel all your appointments as you race through this dramatic saga set during Kenya in the late 1970s.
Americans Margaret and Patrick are in Kenya for Patrick’s work; a physician, he is researching equatorial diseases at Nairobi Hospital and offering free clinics around the country. When the novel starts, the couple has been married for five months. Margaret, a 28-year-old photographer, is eager to find something to do—something to be passionate about—while her husband works at the hospital. She is eventually hired as a freelance photographer for the Kenya Morning Tribune (which, in a moment of rather visceral foreshadowing, is first introduced to us as the blood-soaked wrapper of dinner’s horsemeat.)
With two other couples, Margaret and Patrick go on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya early after their arrival to Africa. The group is mismatched in terms of climbing experience and marital happiness, and one of the climbing party’s rage and desire to show off causes a terrible accident. Due to a series of unintentionally hurtful actions, Margaret feels responsible. Guilt haunts her for the remainder of the novel, and her marriage with Patrick becomes fragile and pained. It becomes a tremendous effort for them to “break through the clot that was thickening just below the surface of their civility and pleasantries.”
Shreve, whose novel The Pilot’s Wife was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, can get cheesy with her flowery prose. (“He took her hand. He often took Margaret’s hand, in public as well as in private. It meant, I am suddenly thinking of you.”) This time, we can forgive Shreve the melodrama because the story is so enthralling.
It is easy to become invested in these characters. Margaret is a complex individual—somewhere between dutiful wife and adventuresome free spirit. We don’t know whether to blame her or to sympathize as she soul searches in the aftermath of the accident. Her husband is imperfect, too, but we understand his difficulty with trusting Margaret.
A Change in Altitude is not the first novel Shreve has set in Africa; The Last Time They Met, published in 2001, contains scenes in Kenya. It is no wonder that Shreve is drawn to Africa as a location. She spent three years working as a journalist at an African magazine in Nairobi, and her descriptions portray her knowledge of the setting. References to Karen Blixon and Denys Finch-Hatton (of Out of Africa fame) can feel a bit trite, but descriptions of beautiful panoramas or a Masai ceremony are detailed and rich. Shreve also touches on post-Mau Mau Rebellion politics, her discomfort with African servants and the subjugation of women.
The image of Margaret scaling a mountain—literally, and figuratively as she attempts to save her marriage—bookends the plot of Shreve’s latest. It is a difficult climb in a stunning locale, and readers will be eager to learn if she successfully scales the peak.
Eliza Borné writes from Nashville. The highest “mountain” she has ever climbed was in a state park in Arkansas.