Airs Above the Ground (by Mary Stewart)

It’s fifteen years since I first read the late Mary Stewart’s novel ‘Airs Above the Ground’. My only memory of the story was that it was related to horses, and involved some European travel. I also remembered that it was a light thriller, set in the 1960s. It was more than time for a re-read.

Vanessa is the viewpoint character of this book, which is written in the first person. She’s in her early twenties, happily married to Lewis March; but we meet her when she’s rather upset, as they have had an unpleasant argument. Worse, he went away on business without their resolving it. She’s feeling quite low, so agrees to have tea with Carmel, a friend of her mother’s whom she finds rather silly, just to have something to do.

Carmel asks Vanessa if she would be willing to escort her teenage son Timothy to Vienna. Timothy wants to spend time with his estranged father, and Carmel has seen film evidence that Vanessa’s husband is in Vienna, after seeing news of a fire at a circus there. This makes Vanessa even more upset, and rather angry too, as Lewis had said he was going to Sweden, and has sent her a couple of cables from Stockholm. So she agrees…

Timothy turns out to be a resourceful young man, once he gets over his resentment at having Vanessa playing nursemaid. His passion is horses, and he hopes to find a job working with the famous Spanish riding school. And since his father does not in fact know his son was arriving, and the timing is rather inconvenient, Timothy, who is aching for adventure, agrees to travel with Vanessa as she goes to find the circus where her husband has been spotted.

The story that follows is full of tension and excitement, and very well written. Modern books tend to have several different viewpoints, and sometimes that can be effective, but a first person single viewpoint allows for more depth of characterisation, and Mary Stewart was skilled in this. Vanessa’s integrity and courage shine through without her ever mentioning them. She struggles a little with society’s expectations of women - she qualified as a vet and had started working, but even in the 1960s was expected to give up her career when she married.

Amidst the tension there are some lighter moments too. There’s a lot of love and strong rapport between Vanessa and Lewis when they get together, and we also see, and develop alongside Vanessa, a growing affection for Timothy. We see him maturing and developing quite rapidly having escaped his mother’s rather tight apron-strings, and he proves, time and again, an excellent companion and support for Vanessa.

I don’t usually like thrillers, but the first person viewpoint meant that I knew Vanessa, at least, would remain alive even though at times this seemed to be unlikely. And while there’s some violence, it’s not gratuitous or gory. There’s a classic car chase, and several other somewhat cliched scenarios, but they’re so well done that it doesn’t matter.

There’s rather more information about the dancing horses than I wanted to know; the author did her research well, and it all feels authentic. It’s essential for the plot to understand some of the principles, but I admit to skimming a few passages that sought to educate me rather than advancing the storyline.

However, other than that, I enjoyed this novel very much. Reading for only the second time, after a space of fifteen years, meant that I really didn’t remember how it ended. I found the ending a bit too abrupt; there’s a short epilogue which clears up one important storyline, but I did wish the author had let us know what happened in Timothy’s life.

Recommended if you like light mid-20th century thrillers with a hint of romance, a good storyline, and some good characterisation.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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