Shortly before I left New York, a friend shared with me her copy of A Change in Altitude, by Anita Shreve.
It’s a novel about a young couple coming to Kenya, he a physician and she a photojournalist. The setting is the 1970s, a critical period in the country’s development (and with Jomo Kenyatta still in power as Kenya’s President, until his death in 1978).
I’m not far into the novel (after I had visited the Ngong Hills last Sunday). The plot centers around the couple and a climb they make of Mount Kenya, with two other couples. The tension is set at the beginning, and as the people get to know one another, it’s agreed that a practice climb will take place before they go.
For their practice climb, the three couples choose the Ngong Hills, and I’m delighted with the descriptions:
“On the way to the first knuckle, the view of the Rift [Valley] was beyond anything [Margaret, the protagonist] had been prepared for – vast and deep and seemingly endless. The temperature down in the valley would be well over a hundred degrees. It might be possible for the inhabitants down there – the Maasai, now too far away to be seen – to believe they are the sole people on earth, the chosen, in charge of, if not humbled by, all that surrounds them. To come from such raw beauty would almost certainly instill a sense of superiority. Margaret knew the Nilotic Maasai to be intractable in their beliefs and customs: the nomadic life, their adherence to ritual, and their diet of cows’ blood and milk, and unenviable regiment that nevertheless made them enviably lean and long.
“They passed grasslands, like English meadows, fields of wild-flowers with dozens of species, some of which no one in the party could name. The climb produced, in addition to exhilaration, a soporific haze, and sometimes Margaret wanted nothing more than to leave the trail and lie down among these flowers. It seemed reward enough.”
The dialogue and other descriptions of their time together in the Ngong Hills is enlivening, and I had fun with the way the six people get to know each other through their prejudices and their observations of the land around them. I had less fun with the drama that ended the visit to the Ngong Hills, an attack on Margaret by what must have been millions of fire ants.
Not nice. I will be careful where I step from not on!
Now we know why one of the characters – an Englishman who has lived in Kenya for many years – earlier remarked that no one sits on the grass, as he pulled a folding stool out of his backpack.
If the rest of the book is this entertaining, I may finish it quickly.