Beauty is a curse in a place where you cannot choose your own fate,” says Nima, who is both narrator and titular character for Adam Popescu’s debut novel, Nima, set in modern-day Nepal. As a Sherpa girl living in a small village at the foot of Mount Everest (or as the Sherpas call it, Jomo-Langma), her fate seems all but sealed.
Popescu sets out to describe the lives of those living in the shadow of the great mountain in a way rarely seen — through the inhabitants’ own eyes. Yet, this attempt has inconsistencies in tone, as the author ultimately struggles to manage the use of both his own voice and Nima’s. Still, Nima manages to surprise with characters that may, at times, seem heavy-handed, but whose struggles still feel earnest and sympathetic.
The Sherpas have a hard life. They only get to choose from a few opportunities for employment: farming, bartering, running hospitality ventures for the white climbers (the mikarus, “white eyes”), or assisting on climbs themselves as porters. Sherpa woman have even fewer choices. The Sherpas consider their women to be bad luck on the mountain, so most end up married-off, where they become homemakers, cooks, and child bearers, as well as providing other support for their husbands.
Nima’s father is a porter, but sustains an injury during an avalanche that causes him to lose the ability to work and also claims the life of his son and would-be climbing heir. This puts additional pressure on the women of the family to provide through farming, a struggle exacerbated through a drought. Marrying off the women becomes an enticing option for the Nima family patriarch, as not only would they receive supplies in return, but also have less mouths to feed.
Nima is three days away from being wedded — alongside her sister, referred to most often as “Second,” compared to Nima’s “Eldest” moniker. Both will wed Norbu, the son of a more-affluent Sherpa family, said to be descendants from the first Everest climber. The deal (as the marriage is certainly transactional, two brides for six yaks) goes south when Norbu decides he doesn’t want two wives, only Nima. When Nima’s family returns home, her father beats Nima, accusing her of conspiring with Norbu and bringing shame to her sister as well as the family at large.
Nima decides to make a change after glimpsing at other ways of life from the Bollywood films she sees in a local cyber cafe and the female Sherpa nurse she meets at school. She flees in the middle of the night, taking some supplies: her knife, her father’s boots, a flashlight, cash, and a cellphone that was to be her wedding present.
Fearing retribution, she runs down the mountain while still battered from the night before and makes it to the air strip that serves as a starting line for climbing hopefuls. There, she encounters three mikarus, the bold BBC reporter Val and her two companions, Ethan (who is Val’s boyfriend) and Daniel. After a conversation with Val in a restaurant, the group agrees to take her on as an additional porter for their expedition up to Base Camp. But to do so, she must assume the role of a boy, cutting her hair short, and taking the name Ang, the name of her deceased younger brother.
Popescu wrote the whole book from Nima’s perspective, but it’s one that he never seems perfectly comfortable in. Early chapters have descriptions and definitions that are meant for the Western audience, but feel out of character for Nima. The exposition fades away after a chapter or two, and then we’re left to figure out the rest of the terms for ourselves.
However, Popescu’s voice doesn’t settle in there. “We’re all obsessed with getting to the top, but that isn’t the story I want to tell. The real story is the people along the way.” You would be forgiven for thinking this is a quote from the author Popescu, who was a reporter for the BBC in the region. Instead, it comes from Val, who as a BBC reporter herself, serves as a natural home for Popescu’s deep knowledge of the region and its people. Despite this, lines that feel like the author’s insight drift between Val and Nima, and often feel out of place in the latter.
Given the uneven journey, characters fall in and out of view as the group makes its way up the mountain. The only ones we get a good look at are Nima, her three climbers, and Norbu, a climber himself. Popescu does a great job of conveying the wariness Nima feels about him and the mikarus. Nima’s life experience has taught her to be on guard, so she keeps her distance, only opening up once she feels comfortable. When we do bridge that gap into the character’s interiority though, we see an empathetic depth only hinted at before.
“An animal lives in the moment, in the now, a high form of consciousness, even if they cannot speak. Being ever present is a major tenet of Buddhism. Forced to act, forced by circumstance, there are no luxuries in nature. And that’s why the snow leopard, the tiger, the monkey, all can attain Nirvana.” Nima says this of a snow leopard encounter, and the same is true for the book. The novel is most successful when it commits to the scene, letting the actions play out and giving space for the audience to breath. The novel has several standout moments, such as the avalanche Nima’s father gets caught in early on, and the meeting between Nima’s family and Norbu’s.
Popescu has created an exciting journey, as one might expect a trek up Everest would be. On Nima’s trip down the mountain looking for an escape, she is Eldest, a girl. On the trip back up to build the life she wants, she becomes a boy named Ang, a witch, and then Nima, a woman. What path lies beyond isn’t clear, but it’s certain the only one to make the next choice will be Nima.
NIMA, by Adam Popescu
Published May 21st, 2019
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.