In The Snow Line, Tessa McWatt gives us into the sensory experience of visiting India

  • The Snow Line, by Tessa McWatt. Scribe, $29.99.

The most celebrated occasion in fiction when a disparate group of strangers ascended a mountain in the Himalayas was James Hilton's Lost Horizon. That beguiling, slow-motion bestseller gave us back both Xanadu and Shangri-La. Lost among cliffs, peaks, ice and snow, those wayfarers found not only themselves but a semblance of happiness.

Tessa McWatt's travelling quartet arrive by the Dhaulladhar express at Pathankot station in Punjab to celebrate a wedding and scale a mountain.

They carry heavy baggage, not merely food and equipment but bad consciences, unhappy memories and grim forebodings.

Where some climbers might strip off layers of clothing as they go, this group unpacks, unpicks and unravels layers of feelings. McWatt is actually less interested in snow lines than in fault lines in feelings and sensations.

Friends of India claim (and they are right) that any trip to India yields double value for money because you are confronted and immersed in double the number of events, characters, settings and incidents in any given day.

As for McWatt, though, she takes the time for a sensory exploration of whatever her quartet encounters, dissecting their emotions and opening up their back-stories as she discloses more about each of them.

McWatt renders with both care and affection the bewildering colour and movement in an Indian wedding, an amateur choir practising badly, and the gracious welcome offered pilgrims at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Nonetheless, her interests lie buried within her characters. Reema, Jackson, Yosh and Monica spend a lot of time talking to each other before they eventually begin to confide and collude.

The awkwardly tentative way in which they do that is one of the quiet, subtle charms in the novel.

Where James Hilton's travellers were (unknowingly) offered a vastly extended life, McWatt's are obliged to suffer all the ravages of maturity and ageing.

A simple motion, for instance, prompts Jackson to think that "inside him something creaks like the hull of a wooden boat on a dock".

That simile provides a fair representation of McWatt's prose style: closely observed, rather intently considered, occasionally a bit too elaborate. In her hands, the Indian expression, "aacha" is transformed into something exotic, almost mystical: "The sound is a comma between now and the future".

The Snow Line manages to be charming, but not cloying, intimately personal without any spurious sentimentality.

This story A mountain, a wedding, a riot of impressions first appeared on The Canberra Times.