By Hatty James
Mount Everest has long stirred the hearts of men and women around the world. The effect of Tanis Rideout’s new novel Above all Things is no different. In the novel she narrates the story of George Mallory’s third and final attempt to climb the summit in 1924.
Rather than staying with the expedition, the plot moves between Ruth, George’s wife back in England with her three young children, and George and his final climbing partner for the summit attempt, Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine. Each of these characters is given their own voice, and the narrative moves between them. The novel is based on the real events of that expedition, but there is a lot of creative license employed when Rideout portrays the motives and emotions of the characters represented.
Although we will never know the actual events of that last, fateful, attempt, Rideout manages to make these people come alive in the novel. Whilst she could have made wild assumptions about the expedition, and indeed takes the imagery a little far in the beginning, she settles down to a story of hardship and struggle embedded in a feeling of reality. The plot line weaves between the three main characters, allowing them each flashbacks to flesh out the feeling of reality that she weaves into their portrayal. Towards the end of the book, this is done through hallucinations, a rather poignant plot device. The fight the men made to gain every footstep, their pain, obsession and determination bleeds through the text. Their brutal journey is well represented. In fact, the only place the story falters is when the narrative moves back to Ruth, the wife, left at home.
When reading the novel I felt that Ruth’s voice isn’t given enough space to establish her presence as a character in the plot line. Her best moments come in George’s flashbacks and hallucinations. Back in England she takes on a rather annoying demeanour, and when this character is seen in relation to Rideout’s portrayal of the men’s expedition, she appears rather pathetic and self-indulgent, provoking a wish for the plot line to return to the men. In fact the novel only focuses on Ruth’s story for a few days, while giving months to the men. The effect of this timing leaves the author the task of portraying months of pain within a few days, and as such has the effect of turning what is otherwise a likeable and strong character into an annoying, repetitive voice.
As the blurb proclaims the story is about the love between George and Ruth, I felt let down by her lack of representation. Their love is represented, but mainly through George’s eyes. This is the story of George, with a supporting cast; his obsession with the mountain, and his incessant desire to finally climb to the summit. This is beautifully presented by Rideout and it is for this reason alone that you should give the novel a chance. This book is really George Mallory’s story; his motivation, his journey and his sacrifice.
It does contain some (admitted) historical inaccuracies, and if I were to categorise its traits, I would say it is a softer, more feminine version of climbing accounts than one often reads. The novel reads more as a fiction – it focuses more on emotion than the actual step-by-step climbing process; but that makes it no less enjoyable, and no less real. The story is interesting, well-written, and while inevitably sad, it is a good, solid read.
This does not pretend to be a factual book, and I would recommend it as an enjoyable read; but maybe to my mother, rather than an adrenaline junkie. It is a good place to start for anyone who is interested in the many attempts made to conquer Everest, either from an academic interest or fictional basis, however it is by no means a true account of the actual events – not that we will ever know what truly happened to those two men on their final, fatal attempt in 1924.
Above All Things was published 6th February 2014 by Penguin
Photograph by Gunther Hagleitner via Flickr