Margaret and Patrick have started their life together with a big adventure. They've swapped the comfort of Massachusetts for the dangers of Kenya where Patrick, a doctor, is studying tropical diseases. The newlyweds are contentedly living in a small cottage on the grounds of the big house owned by Arthur and Diana, until a plumbing problem forces them to move in with the British couple and their children. Over dinner one night, the four decide to take on the challenge of Mount Kenya, a perilous 17,000-ft ascent.
Margaret is an inexperienced climber and during a practice hike in the Ngong Hills with a Dutch couple, her confidence is further dented when she is attacked by a nest of biting ants and has to strip off her clothes to escape them. Willem sensitively looks away, but Margaret finds Arthur staring at her.
On their return, another unsettling event occurs. Adhiambo, the children's nanny, has been raped. A seemingly unsympathetic Diana arrives at Margaret's door and wants them to look after her. Margaret, who worked as a newspaper photographer, is horrified when she sees the slum conditions in which Adhiambo lives.
During the gruelling trek up the mountain, which is described in nightmarish detail from Margaret's perspective, it is Arthur rather than Patrick who waits for the slower Margaret, and later it is his gesture at the rat-infested campsite that provokes tragedy.
Afterwards it seems that Margaret and Patrick's marriage may be another casualty of the mountain.
Anita Shreve is certainly adept at capturing the shattering effects of a single life-changing event. She has sold 10 million novels worldwide, and has a devoted audience. While Shreve may not be lauded in the literary section, her engaging novels are to be savoured. Her keen narrative gift propels her stories along at a steady pace, and this latest is no exception.
Shreve has chosen the milestone of her 15th novel to break away from her normal New England locations. The author, who lived in Kenya for three years, captures the heat and menace of the African country. I've enjoyed a lot of her previous work, notably A Wedding In December and the intriguing Testimony, so I was looking forward to settling down with A Change in Altitude.
However, it doesn't take long to read this strangely sparse novel, devoid as it is of emotional intimacy, a mirror for Margaret and Patrick's now stagnant marriage. Shreve devotes paragraphs to detailing clothes and meals, yet the motivations of her characters are somewhat oblique. (And Patrick is downright enigmatic.) At one stage, the author is forced to list the difficulties that Margaret has encountered since arriving in Kenya in a doomed attempt to drum up sympathy for a character who has been through quite a lot.
Despite this, A Change in Altitude is an entertaining read, although a word of warning -- it ends very abruptly. I actually turned over the final page, not realising that Shreve had already reached her conclusion.