"We're climbing Mount Kenya," Patrick tells his wife, and that simple announcement sets the stage for an emotionally powerful drama in an exotic locale. It's the 1970s, and Americans Patrick and Margaret, married for just a few months, are now living in Kenya so Patrick can practice his specialty --- equatorial medicine. They find themselves staying with their landlords, the condescending Arthur and his dog-obsessed wife, Diana, due to a plumbing issue in their rented cottage. In a subtle yet ominous foreshadowing, the young couple has been robbed multiple times and is now hearing rumors of a mass grave containing 50 students.
The sense of foreboding increases as Margaret, Patrick, Arthur and Diana plan the hike up Mount Kenya with Arthur and Diana's friends, Saartje and Willem. They will be accompanied by an expert local guide and porters, but Margaret dreads the climb. Her trepidation escalates as Willem describes the many hazards of the trek: physical dangers, medical side-effects, weather problems, and so on.
On a practice run, Patrick and Arthur argue over the benefits and detriment of imperialism, with Patrick insisting that changing native lives has damaged them. Despite the argument, Margaret enjoys a brief, blissful moment with the others, gazing around at the glorious African countryside. Alas, this happy interlude will be her last one with this group. She is suddenly attacked by fire ants; their stings are so vicious that she must strip off her clothing. Afterward, the ant bites leave her with lingering physical and mental consequences. Even as the welts begin to heal, she is faced with another much more dreadful scenario involving one of Arthur and Diana's servants.
Despite foreboding and omens, the climb begins as planned. For Margaret, it is one grueling torture after another, complicated by one party's romantic interest in another, which results in aroused jealous feelings. Margaret is the slowest climber in the group, and must deal with differing degrees of contempt from the others regarding her progress. However, this uncomfortable situation turns instantly inconsequential when a sudden, shocking event occurs. After the tragedy, Margaret becomes aware that one small and innocent action on her part just might have instigated the disaster.
The events on the mountain devastate Margaret. As she forces herself eventually to make every effort to forge ahead with a normal life, searching for and finding freelance work as a photographer for a local newspaper, she continues to find her world view changed and enlarged by Kenya. As the country's moral, political, class and cultural issues challenge her viewpoint, problems closer to home tip her foundation. It seems that the tragedy on Mount Kenya is still affecting her life via a domino effect that continues to reverberate throughout Margaret and Patrick's marriage.
As always, Anita Shreve's characters are exquisitely wrought; Margaret is a breathing, living and sympathetic woman. The plot pace is well-honed and graced with vivid descriptions of the African countryside and people. This tale detailing the aftermath of extraordinary stresses on a marriage is yet another irresistible page-turner from a fine storyteller.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on December 26, 2010
A Change in Altitude