‘Left wanting more of the political backdrop to Kenya’ – A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

“We’re climbing Mount Kenya. Not this Saturday, but the next.”

From the opening line, we are quickly introduced to newlyweds Margaret and Patrick, only just recently arrived in Kenya. When a British couple invites them on a climbing expedition to the summit of Mount Kenya, they eagerly agree. But during their difficult ascent a horrific accident occurs and it is not only a member of the party who dies on the mountain. Margaret and Patrick are left with the tatters of their marriage as the country falls apart around them.

From the beginning we know that an accident will occur and so for the first half of the novel tension slowly builds. We share the character’s feeling of apprehension as the ascent begins, wondering as to what exactly will happen and who will perish before they reach the summit. Yet in the aftermath, as with any accident there must always be someone to blame, and for the remainder of the book, feelings of guilt and remorse must be worked through and examined. Margaret finds herself questioning her own actions on the mountain and scrutinises her marriage with Patrick. Despite their long relationship, Margaret comes to realise that they have become almost strangers to one another in a foreign land. She begins to feel a sense of loneliness alongside the guilt others place on her and her own remorse that she feels.

While Patrick practices medicine and conducts a clinical study, seeing for himself various parts of the country, Margaret works as a photographer at the local newspaper, capturing with her lens the new sights around her as she tries to combat the feelings of loneliness. We see the country from Margaret’s perspective, always with an eye out for the visual side to Africa. Shreve paints a vivid picture of the continent in the late 1970s, most likely due to her time spent there, portraying the complexities of the time that many of Margaret’s fellow expats or tourists simply cannot see. There remains an undercurrent of tension that runs throughout, with Margaret feeling threatened by what happens around her. Their car is stolen; thieves break into their home, and she sets out to expose the hardships that servants to expats like themselves must endure, all while rumours continue to circulate of mass graves.

While Margaret’s narrative does provide us with some wonderful descriptions of the sights and sounds around her, her thoughts are often used bluntly, coming across as exposition for moving the plot quickly forward. Without wishing to reveal the ending, the complex politics of the time become somewhat lost within Margaret’s story which itself ends rather abruptly and unsatisfactorily and I was left wanting more of the political backdrop to Kenya and of the resolution to the characters themselves.

Any Cop?: Though enlightening and entertaining, Shreve fails to completely engage with the reader with the plot moving along (or rising up) to its conclusion; it barely has time to examine the characters or the events going on around it. Yet as someone who has never read any of Anita Shreve’s novels (this being her sixteenth), there was enough in the book to make we want to explore her other works.

Robert Chilver

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