Monday, May 31, 2010

Anita Shreve tells a bittersweet story of an American couple in Kenya

I have not read a novel by Anita Shreve before; but I know she writes bestsellers, and I was interested to see what they were like. As it happens, I was in a town with no book store, so I looked for a novel in Ralph’s supermarket. This was the best I could do, but I could have done far far worse.

A Change in Altitude

A Change in Altitude (307 pages, Back Bay Books, $14.99) is the latest of Anita Shreve’s many bestselling and well-respected novels. This one tells the story of Margaret and Patrick, a young and happily married American couple who have relocated for several years to Kenya. Patrick is a medical researcher who has had the opportunity to go to Kenya to study local diseases. In return for this, he runs clinics throughout the country. Margaret worked as a photographer for a local newspaper in Boston before agreeing to join her husband, but once in Kenya she has started worrying a bit about what she can do.

The novel is set during Jomo Kenyata’s presidency—sometime in the early nineteen seventies—and the political tensions are palpable. White expatriates tend to live in neighborhoods that are fairly isolated from the African population; but even so, they seem to be in constant danger from thefts and violence. Before they have been in Kenya even a year, Margaret and Patrick have their car stolen, their rented house ransacked, and their servant raped. They are resilient enough when these things happen, but they also take a considerable toll on their emotional life.

Kenya puts a strain on their marriage too. The biggest strain occurs because of an accident that transpires during their attempt to climb Mount Kenya. They are attempting the 17,000 ft. mountain with local friends—Arthur and Diana, a British couple who have been in Kenya for a long time, and another Dutch couple who are aloof and generally irritating. The climb is tough for Margaret, and she constantly feels that she is holding everyone back. Arthur is solicitous, and tries to encourage her. His attentions to Margaret do not go unnoticed, though, and both Patrick and Diana seem affected by Margaret’s seeming willingness to accept Arthur’s kindnesses.

Later on during that climb, there is a terrible tragedy, and everyone, even Patrick and Margaret herself, feel that she has somehow been responsible. This causes a great tension in the marriage, and Patrick and Margaret start suspecting each other of unfaithfulness and treating each other badly in day to day life. When things have gotten about as bad as they could be, Margaret meets someone at work—she has found work as a photographer for a local newspaper—who is handsome and sensitive and he seems to offer an alternative to Patrick.

Rafiq, the Pakistani/African/British journalist who befriends her, seems to understand all she is suffering, and she opens up to him as she hasn’t been able to open up to Patrick. Still, there are enough obstacles to having an extra-marital affair, not least of which is Margaret’s own sense that things with Patrick are simply not settled.

When the one year anniversary of their disastrous climb of Mount Kenya comes round, Patrick gets the bright idea that it would be good for them to climb the mountain once more. He hopes that they will be able to quiet their demons and rediscover their love for one another.

Whether or not they are able to do that is a question I will not answer. Suffice it to say, this second climb is momentous, although perhaps not in the ways that either of them has expected.

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. At times it feels that Anita Shreve is putting her characters through some kind of experiment of her own; but in the end, I would have to agree that she gets inside them to very good purpose.

Anita Shreve

At Vroman's, Amazon and Powell's.

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