When I first encountered the stories of the early Everest expeditions, I didn’t even have the facts; all I had was the myth.
I was first introduced to the story of George Mallory while working at a local outfitter, selling climbing and camping gear. There was a television set on the shop floor that played gear videos, mountain movies, and adventure documentaries. My favorite documentary was one that showed black-and-white footage of the earliest attempts to climb Mr. Everest. That was how I first saw George Mallory: in pith helmet and knee socks, crossing the Himalaya. From the very start, that image and the story of his disappearance had me hooked.
The mythology surrounding Mallory is unmistakably grand. He was one of the last of the classic English gentleman explorers — an athlete, a scholar, and a writer with ties to the Bloomsbury group.
I am using that quote to back into this review of Above All Things because it supplies some ideal context. The 2012 Everest climbing season has now come to a close and, even as a non-climber, it is fair to observe it was a disaster. By all accounts, the slopes of the world’s highest peak now bear more resemblance to the midway at your local fair than they do to the lonely top-of-the-world outpost of Mallory’s day — scores of ill-trained climbers, junk from previous climbs, a circus of foolish ambition. That current distasteful situation is a significant barrier to those contemplating reading a fictional account of the quest as it existed almost a century ago.
One thing hasn’t changed, however: people still die there, as Mallory did. And, even before I begin discussion of the book, it is worth noting that Rideout has done the reading world a favor by writing this fictional version of the Mallory story, a reminder that Mt. Everest once was regarded as the world’s third unreached “Pole”, not the scene of an annual circus. And having lost the race to the other two to an American and a Norwegian, the Brits were determined to claim conquest of the third.
Rideout opens her story with a brief chapter set in 1920 as Mallory is preparing for his first Everest attempt and explaining to his wife, Ruth, the powerful hold that the mountain has on him:
He took her hands again and traced the lines of her palms, like horizons. “She was named for George Everest. He was the surveyor general of India, but he died before he ever saw her. From malaria, after blindness, paralysis, and wild bouts of insanity. He was a bully apparently, drove his men mad. He set out to force some order on the world with his maps. He started at the bottom and swept his survey up the arc of India.
So even before the first Englishman had ever stood at the base of the mountain, Everest was inspiring a fanatical attraction in some that bordered on — perhaps extended to — madness. By the time Mallory is preparing for his third attempt in 1924, when the novel proper opens, he has become one of that affected group. And while Ruth in that short opening chapter saw her husband as “the world famous explorer” by the time attempt number three is looming she has tired of paying the price for the apparently hopeless enterprise. The couple now have three children and George has a new teaching position at Cambridge — it is time to get on with proper gentlemanly life, raising a family and abandoning impossible youthful pursuits.
“You said you were done with it. You promised.” Her voice sounded tight. She breathed in deeply. “I know you, George. What you want is for me to give you leave to go.”
“No,” he started to protest, but she was right. They both knew it.
Eventually, Ruth had agreed they should think about it, and he promised they’d make the decision together. But when Hinks’s final invitation came, George had accepted without discussing it with her. He couldn’t help himself. For days after, he’d waited for the right moment to tell her what he’d done.
Above All Things is very much a book about mountain climbing, but as those excerpts show Rideout makes it much more than that. Chapters that painstakingly tell the story of the expedition’s progress to and up the mountain are alternated with a second narrative stream, a day in the life of Ruth Mallory, back in Cambridge, awaiting the post every day, hoping for a letter from her husband even though by then the letter would be several weeks old and George, assuming he was still alive, would be in a far different space on the climb.
While every attempt on Everest involves an extensive team (five climbers from England, two supporting Englishmen based in India and a host of native porters and bearers on this one), it is ultimately a lonely experience. The final thrust for the summit will involve teams of only two. And, as the climbers move higher on the mountain, the lack of oxygen plays tricks with the mind — despite the hostile surroundings, memories of the past move to the immediate mental present, often becoming hallucinations that are so real that the climber overlooks the actual reality and suffers fatally for the lapse.
Rideout offsets that mountain-slope loneliness with Ruth’s. As the months of George’s absence unfold, her own mind moves more and more to where she thinks her husband’s is. On the day that the author uses to tell her story, she plans and holds a dinner party with family and climbing friends of George’s (including Hinks, the chair of the committee overseeing English Everest attempts, whom she loathes for stealing George from her this third time). It is an effort to root herself in English reality; it doesn’t work as her own mind is preoccupied with memories of herself and George, more recent ones of how he betrayed his promise and became part of this expedition and her growing fears about what might have happened to him since his last letter.
Rideout also employs another voice in the Everest stream of her narrative: Sandy Irvine is taking a term off from his studies at Oxford as the fifth, least-experienced member of the team. He hasn’t done a lot of climbing himself but he is strong in a husky sort of way and has Mr. Fixit skills for the equipment ranging from ropes to oxygen tanks to stoves that continually breaks down as the climb progresses. George has been there before and already experienced most of the challenges and problems (except for the last few hundred feet) but for Sandy each setback is a new one — the contrast between veteran and rookie is a device well-executed by the author.
As noted earlier, I am not a climber but I do remember reading Everest books as a youth (although I can’t remember the authors or titles). Certainly as the climbers reach higher heights and mental confusion and hallucinations became more frequent, I remembered those earlier volumes. But while Rideout does this well, the strength of this novel lies in the way that she successfully captures the similarities and tensions in the parallel stories of George and Ruth, even though they are worlds apart (both horizontally and vertically). In the final analysis, Above All Things is a book about characters — not just George, Ruth and Sandy, but everyone affected by the expedition, be they climbers or those left behind.
For a debut novel, Above All Things is exceptionally well-written, a feature that has been noted in most reviews of the book that I have read. Rideout thanks editor Anita Chong (a new name to me, but I probably have not been paying attention) in her acknowledgements and, perhaps more tellingly (at least for me), also acknowledges the contribution of Ellen Seligman, arguably the best book editor in Canada. In an era when so many book publishing houses are laying off editors (and even completely out-sourcing the function to authors and their agents), this novel was a reminder of just how much value a good editor can add — kudos to McClelland & Stewart for assigning such exceptional editing talent to a first novelist because the positive results are readily apparent.
I’ve talked to friends who were hesitant about trying this book simply because it is about mountain climbing, a pursuit in which they have no interest — and it must be admitted that some curiosity about climbing and climbers is required. Having said that, the novel is much more about a time that has passed and the characters who were part of it — on this front, Tanis Rideout can lay claim to significant success.