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Monday, August 3, 2015

Reviews Archive: "Above All Things" by Tanis Rideout - a Great Debut Novel by a Canadian Writer


5 Stars

This is a book I hesitated to pick up because it is about mountain climbing, a pursuit in which I have no interest. The many positive reviews it has received changed my mind, and I’m so happy I was persuaded. It’s not just about mountain climbing, and it is a wonderful read.

The book tells a fictionalized account of George Mallory’s third attempt to conquer Mount Everest, in 1924. The expedition is described from two points of view: that of George’s and that of the expedition’s least-experienced climber, Sandy Irvine. The Everest sections are alternated with one day in the life of Ruth, George’s wife, as she waits for word about her husband. The mountain climbing sections kept my attention because the focus is on the men and their thoughts and reactions and not just the physical obstacles
encountered. The other half, with its imaginative rendering of “what it would mean to be married
to a man like George Mallory” (352), was equally interesting.

Climbing Mount Everest has become an activity for almost anyone with sufficient funds; none of these tourists face the challenges of Mallory and his contemporaries who “willingly endured the discomfort and pain of freezing temperatures and the many dangers of extreme altitudes dressed in little more than Burberry tweeds” (352) at a time when some viewed the use of oxygen tanks as “unsporting” (254). And, unlike Ruth Mallory, the loved ones of modern-day tourists need not wait “for months at a time with nothing but long-delayed letters, delivered by steamer, to soothe [their] worries” (352). At one point Ruth comments, “’The letter. It is weeks old. Everything has already been decided and there’s nothing we can do to change it’” (299), as she copes with the possibility that her husband might not come home.

One aspect of the summit attempt about which I was curious was the question of why the obsession to climb Everest. Mallory once gave the enigmatic response, “’Because it’s there’” (107), but other motivations are suggested. At one point Rideout has Mallory talking about climbing as an escape (130) and the ultimate adrenaline rush: “’Isn’t that part of why we go out there? The fear, the possibility of it all ending? To really feel alive’” (155). As he tries to explain to a doubtful Ruth that the sacrifices involved are worth it, George argues that “’It’s for something greater, Ruth’” (222) and “’A chance to make it up to all of those in the war’” (271). And then there’s the beauty that Irvine describes: “He was enjoying this – the sweep of the mountains around them, the brilliance of the sky. The total silence . . . There was only the sound of his breath. The swish of his boots through the new snow, the crunch of ice below. He thought he understood why George loved mountains. . . . Everything seemed impossibly perfect . . . “ (166). In the end I still didn’t understand why the great desire, but the author’s speculations gave food for thought.

The role of Everest in the relationship between George and Ruth is fascinating. From the opening page it is obvious that Ruth sees herself as competing with the mountain for her husband’s affections as she asks: “’Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me’” (1). Clearly Ruth’s views of love change because of her husband’s obsession; she observes, “When I was small I imagined love as something safe, something without sharp edges, only the sweeping, enveloping curves of romance and happiness. But it isn’t . . . There are edges and they cut” (177). She even tells George, “’It feels as though we’ve spent more time apart than together . . . That’s not a marriage’” (222). George realizes that his efforts to reach the summit of Everest have had an impact on his relationship, and he thinks that succeeding at his goal will make things right between him and Ruth: “If he came home empty-handed, all the sacrifice would have been for nothing. . . . Ruth had lived for the past five years on the promise that he would reach the summit and then everything would change for them. Disappointing her would break his heart. And Everest would still be there, between them. The great mass of it and the years it had consumed. For nothing. Only claiming the summit could make things right between them” (222 – 223). Was this his ultimate motivation? Yet I found it impossible to imagine that if he had returned, he would have kept his promise never “’to go away again’” (222).

It is George’s character, of course, that is most interesting. He is not an ordinary man; the book jacket describes him as “a man of uncommon athleticism, passion, and ambition” and that is an apt description. He argues that “’Moderation has never led to greatness . . . No, give me a wild temperament’” (153), although others tell him, “’You’re always so damned rash’” (317). Was he selfish and self-centered and a glory hound: “’As long as everything works out in your favour, . . . it doesn’t much matter what happens to anyone else. As long as we’re still there to play the audience to your adventures’” (313)? There is certainly something both admirable and repulsive about someone so single-mindedly determined to achieve a goal.

The book gives one pause to ponder the idea of sacrifice in the pursuit of a goal. Mallory argues that it is “important to risk something if you believed in the end goal” (30), and Sandy’s father tells his son, “’There’s a cost to pay for something worth doing. Anything worth doing. . . . Sacrifice is the watchword’” (64 – 65). Sandy is, however, also given further advice by another expedition member: “’But you have to decide for yourself what price is too high’” (232). At the end of the novel I wondered whether the price paid by Mallory and Irvine was too high. What about the price paid by Ruth and her three children? Mallory thinks that coming home after a failed attempt would mean that “all the sacrifice would have been for nothing” (222), yet he never contemplates what not coming home would mean? And then there’s the question of whether he reached the summit!

I highly recommend this book. It is an indication of the writer’s skill that she kept me entranced throughout, even about a subject in which I had minimal interest and even though I knew the outcome from the very beginning.

(from October 2012)