02/09/2004

Airs Above the Ground (by Mary Stewart)

I like Mary Stewart's writing. It's concise, cleverly plotted, and with some good characterisation. There's a bit of suspense, too, although not too much to make me feel nervous or give me nightmares. Many of her books are now out of print, having been written in the 1950s and 1960s, so I'm always glad to find one in a second-hand shop.

'Airs above the ground' introduces us instantly to the main character, Vanessa. She is not happy. She and her husband Lewis were supposed to be on holiday in Italy, but at the last moment he was asked to do a work assignment in Stockholm. They parted on angry terms.

Vanessa's mother's friend Carmel then mentions that she saw Lewis on the news, not in Stockholm but in Vienna, on an item about a fire breaking out at a circus. Vanessa manages to see the same newsreel, and spots not just Lewis but a young and pretty circus girl with him...

Carmel assumes that Vanessa will be going to Vienna to meet Lewis, and asks her if she would escort her moody 17-year-old son Timothy who is going to stay with his father. So Vanessa agrees and the two set off on what turns out to be a thrilling adventure involving the circus and some highly trained dancing horses.

I suppose this would be classed as a thriller. In some ways it's predictable for the genre as written forty years ago: among other things there's a nerve-wracking psychological battle around castle battlements, a car chase up a mountain, and a terrifying fight against time when someone is trapped on a railway line with the train rushing through a long tunnel not far away.

But none of these seem clich├ęd, somehow, because they're so well written. There is suspense and excitement but even though I generally prefer more relaxed and gentle books, I didn't find this one unpleasantly frightening. The style is terse without extraneous description; fast-paced and clear. There was no point at which I got bored or tempted to skim, or even when I felt happy to put the book down!

The characters are excellent. The villain is rather caricatured, but the rest of the cast were well-rounded and I related somewhat to them all. Vanessa and Timothy are the two main protagonists. I suppose it's a sign of the age of the book that a married 24-year-old woman and a 17-year-old boy could travel together and never develop anything beyond a brother-and-sister type of relationship. I particularly liked the portrayal of Timothy, starting out as a sulky young man who doesn't in the least want to be escorted by a friend of his mother's, turning out to be to an eager circus fan who adores horses, and eventually a mature and intelligent person who thinks fast and is excellent and trustworthy in the many crises that arise.

Mary Stewart also has a gift for making the reader question what exactly is going on, without ever deliberately misleading them. She uses conversation very cleverly. I was a long way into the book before I understood what was going on with Vanessa's husband Lewis: who he was, what he was doing and why. Could he even be trusted? Who was the girl seen with him in the news? I wanted to know the answers to these questions and more, and I found it a highly satisfactory novel; my only disappointment was that I finished it so quickly.

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