Confession: I saw the parasol first thing in the cover and thought it was an Asian American novel, and had to read the back cover to be informed otherwise.
Published in Canada June 2012, Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things seems timely after the May death of Shriya Shah-Klorfine, the Canadian woman who summited Everest but died on the way back down last year. For some reason, I was fascinated by the story, read her last messages, weighed in on whether she should have gone given the huge expense and leaving behind a family, and looked into the harsh terrain that faces someone who wants to “climb Everest”. No wonder reaching base camp is a great feat in itself. I found myself with my first nonsensical niggling I want to climb Everest too. NPY says that a lot of people are attracted to the thought.
The teaser I got from the book spine was enough to keep this book on my radar. I gathered that the novel goes through a day – the last day – of George Mallory’s life and the corresponding day of his wife, Ruth. It is tremendously tragic because he dies in an attempt to reach the top of Mount Everest. The story is also told from the viewpoint of a new member of the expedition, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine.
While I knew George Mallory would not survive, at least I wondered if his climbing partner (which was shaping up to be Sandy) would actually summit. Then I just can’t resist and go and read the George Mallory Wikipedia page and spoil it for me. It also reminds me how big this story is in the climbing world, how there are unknown aspects still lingering over 85 years later. That is the power of Everest, how it is a grave for so many climbers because of its vast site, remoteness and the inordinate effort to bring a body down.
From each of the main characters’ perspective, the story unfolds in the present, the summer of 1924 but with fluid and frequent flashbacks to provide context and background.
At the center is George and Ruth Mallory and their perspective. George is an ardent climber, a veteran of World War I and in love with his wife. But the accomplishment of climbing Mount Everest eludes him (and all of humankind) and he feels a little possessive of the feat such that he cannot turn down a third attempt. He means to settle down to a normal life – be a present father to his three small children – after summiting Everest. He is haunted by his own self-doubt and some of his expedition team members especially with the death of seven porters during the last expedition. (Oh, and he had an affair.) “This will be the last time,” he keeps promising Ruth and we all know exactly what it means, a world different from his intentions.
Ruth Mallory was swept off her feet by George from the moment they first met but the reality of their relationship is that he would be away as often as he was with her with frequent and painful farewells. She keenly feels that she places second after Mount Everest and her fears of a bad outcome grow throughout the novel, especially as people kindly inquire or applaud George’s progress. Succinctly, she is living in a private hell and you wonder if the “day in her life” will culminate with learning George’s fate and you know her hell would continue forever.
Sandy Irvine’s perspective objectively takes in all of the expedition team members and porters. He is less academically interested in Everest but it is certainly an accomplishment he wants to share in, not just to babysit the porters and repair equipment. He also does not have friends’ and family’s full endorsement and leaves behind a sticky romantic situation and difficult decision to make. Assuming he will be part of the two-man team to attempt the summit with George, the unknown is whether he summits, survives, returns to England and turns his civilian life around.
When I first started reading the novel, I was alarmed because I kept falling asleep. I obviously wasn’t getting enough rest because it is interesting!! I didn’t read every description at length or think about it in terms of progress but the detail and story telling was impressive. Slowly, I did see the progression, from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp to the higher camps with increased associated difficulties. Rideout is a poet who fell upon an obsession with the story of Mallory and Irvine and had to learn more about it and then wanted to write a novel. The book is considered to be “imaginative fiction” that weaves facts with universal truths like human emotion and her own speculation. The effect was gut-wrenching in on my emotions for their struggles on the climb and Ruth’s desolation and simply spellbinding.