Thursday, April 25, 2013

On Tanis Rideout's Above All Things, climbing mountains, and reader expectations

What a spectacular and heartrending novel.

Tanis Rideout's Above All Things proves how a talented writer can transform a reader's attitude toward a subject. George Mallory's expedition to Mt. Everest in 1924 hadn't ever been something I'd thought much about, or if I did, it rather frightened me.  I don't like heights, and although I love vacationing in the mountains and gazing at the gorgeous views, my preferred sight of them is from the bottom. 

Which is to say – I felt I would be the natural audience for precisely half of this book.  Above All Things interweaves the experiences of Mallory, on his third and final attempt to scale Everest, and that of his wife, Ruth, as she passes an ordinary day at her home in Cambridge, England, caring for their three children and barely holding things together in his absence.  Part domestic narrative from a woman's viewpoint, part energetic adventure.  What would life have been like for Ruth, being married to a man who loved her passionately but whose uncontrollable ambition kept driving him away and into danger?  That's what interested me the most.

To my surprise, I found myself absorbed by both accounts. I began reading with a knot in my stomach, dreading the novel's inevitable tragic ending, but it slowly unraveled as I became caught by the poignant love story and the particulars of the treacherous climb.  Even more, I've been googling for information on Everest and Mallory ever since I finished.

In 1924, ten years after the British were called to fight a war "for King and Country," George is asked to join one last Everest expedition, the invitation citing the same call to honor. He had made two previous (failed) attempts to the summit and had promised Ruth that he was through with the mountain, but he can't resist its pull, and the chance for personal, professional, and national glory if he succeeds.

Ruth's story uses first-person present tense, while George's is third-person past.  Both unfold with the same level of intimacy.  Each of them looks back on key moments from their life together, so their accounts frequently overlap and blend. 

Her life without him back home is a struggle, attempting to hide her intense fear while keeping up a normal family life and presenting a positive outlook to the reporters who badger her for information on George.  Through her viewpoint, her quiet strength emerges, as well as her resentment at being left behind – and her continued love for him, regardless of the outcome.

George's part of the tale is completely fascinating.  What an immense production it was for his team and the dozens of porters who dragged supplies for miles up the Himalayas. Then there was the multi-stage process for the climb to the peak, the brutally cold wind, the blistering sun, and the thin air which makes it hard to breathe and hinders mental clarity.  I felt like I was making the trek alongside them, step by perilous step.  

Also, this was the 1920s, when the use of canned oxygen was controversial while taking cigarette breaks en route was unquestioned!  With no path already mapped out, the climbers must rely on George to guide them.  "The ice shows you, if you know how to read it," he tells Sandy Irvine, one of his fellow explorers: "It's like a slow river."

Sandy's is the third viewpoint included, and it makes the novel all the richer – and all the more tragic.  Andrew "Sandy" Irvine is a 21-year-old Oxford student with minimal mountaineering experience, but he has youth and physical strength on his side.  He has an appealing boyish confidence and looks to George to lead them up and down Everest safely.  Sandy has left behind disappointed family members who don't understand his need to take the risk, as well as a messy love affair.  It takes time for him to grasp the true human cost of their endeavor, and his realization is a painful, pivotal moment.

The author takes some liberties with dates and characters. Although she comes clean about them in her note at the end, I found myself needing to unlearn some things after I was done.  Still, this didn't lessen the impact the book had on me.  Not just a gripping novel of high adventure, Above All Things also looks deep within to examine the forces that motivate us and drive us on, as well as the high price we can pay for the things we desire most.  I certainly recommend it to historical fiction readers, Everest buffs or not.

Above All Things was published by Viking Penguin (UK) in March at £12.99 (trade pb, 385pp, cover art at top).  It also appears in hardcover from Putnam/Amy Einhorn ($26.95) and from McClelland & Stewart in Canada (C$22.00).  For more background details, see also Tanis Rideout's earlier guest post about the artifacts she used in her research.


  1. Anonymous3:54 AM

    Trivia: same girl on the cover of Tyringham Park (Penguin British edition.)

  2. I loved this book! So glad to read other positive reviews of it.