Guest Post: A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE by Anita Shreve

Thank you to guest-poster Nancy West for this review of A Change of Altitude by Anita Shreve.

Shreve On one level, A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve is a travelogue, depicting what it’s like to live as an American in Kenya in the late 1970’s. As seen through the eyes of young newlywed Margaret, Kenya is magnificent and yet terrifying, irresistible but also abominable, with its gorgeous scenery and mesmerizing wildlife but also corruption, poverty and crime. On another level, A Change in Altitude can be interpreted as an allegory for the first year of marriage, which is just what Margaret and her physician husband, Patrick, are undertaking simultaneous with their year in Kenya. Welcome to a strange new life, in which romance and excitement contrast with miscommunications, disappointments, domestic stress and in their case tragedy. Does that describe Kenya? Marriage? Or both?

I spent two weeks as a tourist in Kenya more than a decade ago, and I was fascinated, wondering what it would be like to live there. Through Margaret’s eyes, we find out: mostly it’s often really difficult. Robbery and other forms of crime are a constant threat, and like a lot of Americans and Europeans, Margaret suffers from guilt regarding Colonialism. Their servants work hard and loyally for them, only to be separated from their families for months on end or to go home to deplorably poor conditions, as Margaret discovers when she escorts a friend’s nanny to her home in the slums of Nairobi after the nanny survives a violent attack.

Patrick and Margaret’s real problems begin with a tragic event. They join another couple for a challenging hike up Mt. Kenya, and one of the friends meets with a disastrous end that Margaret may or may not be indirectly to blame for. From there, things only seem to get worse for the couple: they return home to suffer the guilt of the accident along with the ongoing stress of living in such a complicated place. Adultery tempts both husband and wife; even their professional lives encounter obstacles specific to Kenya.

With its ongoing themes of culpability, resilience, and how we decide whom to forgive and when and for what, we see in Margaret and Patrick’s story how both life in Kenya and marriage are obstacle-strewn landscapes not easily – and perhaps not happily – survived.

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