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.

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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". For Hollywood this is now an article of faith. The scene is Nairobi in , with Kenyatta still in power and the dark sail of Aids only just appearing on the horizon.

Patrick is working at a hospital all the hours of the day and he is conscious that, despite the new environment, Margaret might be bored. A suggestion by their English friends and landlords, Diana and Arthur, that they climb Mount Kenya is readily taken up, but despite warnings about how difficult and dangerous it is, Margaret is unprepared for the effects of the consequent "change in altitude".

She joins an opposition newspaper as a photographer and falls in love with a handsome Ugandan Asian exile called Rafeeq. Part of the reason for this is that Shreve takes the time to circle round issues, rather than being forced into the linear pursuit of a narrative object. Here, the object is climbing Mount Kenya again and, in the process, perhaps saving her marriage. It is only in the final few pages that the alert reader will become aware that the whole book is actually a sustained engagement with To the Lighthouse.

The presentation of African English is fairly one-dimensional "The wind is taking them away" , and there is a constant tendency to give facts and figures in an encyclopaedic fashion "Since the last trip, Margaret had learned that half of all AMS [acute mountain sickness] deaths in the world occurred on Mount Kenya". But these are minor misgivings about another fine novel by an author who, while delivering a similar kind of experience book by book — as a mass-market author must — never loses her capacity to surprise and enlighten.


A Change in Altitude

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?


A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve


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