Anita Shreve has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, earning her place in "popular" fiction. But she seems unable to transcend this category and is often snootily reviewed. Perhaps it is that critics tend to underrate the narrative gift even though it is all too rare. Or is it that she is almost literary — but not quite? Set in Kenya, the novel is more than a cliffhanger: you could call it a glacier-dropper.
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The Daily Review, Wednesday, Oct. Some information in it may no longer be current. Comments Share As a ravenous reader, I consume varied fare. I usually have a door-stop of a Victorian classic or one of the Russians on the go, as well as a contemporary master - Munro and Strout are favourites - not to mention a slender volume of poetry, Tsvetaeva or Rilke, to sustain the soul, followed by a dense, rich dessert, perhaps the latest Anita Shreve novel.
But I confess that I read her furtively and feel sheepish about displaying her oeuvre on my library shelf. Am I a literary snob? However, she is a deft craftsperson and a master of psychological suspense, gifts amply displayed in her latest novel, A Change in Altitude.
Shreve journeys far from her usual craggy coastal landscape in New England to Kenya during the late s, where newlyweds Margaret and Patrick plan to spend a year. In an early scene, a mother of three holds out a tin cup to passersby while her youngest child, dressed only in a dirty shirt, squats and defecates on the sidewalk.
Meanwhile, across the street, American tourists count canisters of film as they await the zebra-striped minibuses which will take them on safari.
An irreversible crisis and its reverberations form the core of A Change in Altitude. In less successful novels, Body Surfing and The Last Time They Met, the shocker is forced and strains credulity, a surprise jerry-rigged upon a contrived notion, narrative and characters forced to fit the preconceived structure. The catastrophe in A Change of Altitude works. An English couple and their Dutch friends invite Margaret and Patrick to join them on a climbing expedition up Mount Kenya, a perilous, 17,foot ascent that claims four or five lives each year.
On the climb, a momentary lapse results in a terrible accident. The climb is superbly dramatized and the point where I could not put the novel down. This is the Sisyphean hike from hell, where the trekkers have to conquer the worst of Mount Kenya: A buffalo threatens to charge; a vertical bog, virtually alive, sucks at boots and knees; steep scree results in two slides backward for every three steps forward; a glacier menaces; and rats crawl over hands and feet in the sleeping huts.
Story continues below advertisement In her nod to widespread accessibility, Shreve interprets the action, failing to give her readers credit. In the aftermath of the climb, Margaret and Patrick face a new mountain to scale: repairing their marriage. Margaret feels responsible for the tragedy on Mount Kenya, and her marriage hits the rocks. Shreve delves deeply into marriage, a rich, bottomless subject.
It becomes clear that they barely knew one another before the climb. Whether their marriage will survive provides additional narrative tension. Margaret decides to take a job at a daily newspaper, photographing the people of Kenya.
She hopes that the country will heal her and her marriage. She thinks of Africa: "It had been her constant companion for nearly a year, teaching her, scolding her, enveloping her. It was in her lungs and blood now. In a tragedy, can blame or responsibility be assigned? How does one move on from a reckless moment that has led to irreversible consequences? Ami Sands Brodoff welcomes suggestions for sustaining winter reads - as well as a few frothy confections.
She blogs frequently at chez-ami. Report an error Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback globeandmail. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters globeandmail.
A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve
Share via Email Mount Kenya. Yet we more or less know what is meant by them, and they are the terms used by publishers and booksellers. Between the foothills of the one and the wide plains of the other — the inclination of value across this divide is no less up for argument than the categories themselves — lives Anita Shreve, who has now produced her 15th novel. She has been very well published both here and in the United States: a balance has been struck between strong marketing that produces extremely high sales worldwide 10 million and counting and a pitch at the readership that is more like a kind of deflection or reticence. This is in tune with the writing itself, which has been described as "relentlessly passive" and "undemonstrative".
Review: A Change in Altitude, by Anita Shreve
A Change in Altitude