by Tanis Rideout
George Mallory has attempted to reach the summit of Mount Everest twice to obtain glory and honor for England; both times, he and his teammates have failed. After a disastrous avalanche during the second expedition, George promised his wife Ruth that he would stay home, away from the mountain. But when he is invited to join a third expedition, he is unable to refuse the call of the mountain. Ruth tries to be supportive, but she has grown tired of competing with Everest for her husband’s devotion. As George pushes himself and his team to reach the mountain peak, Ruth waits, eager for letters weeks out of date, hoping each time that he’ll finally send word that he’s coming home.
My previous knowledge of Mt. Everest is pretty much limited to John Krakauer’s account in Into Thin Air, which I read just over four years ago. I’ve also recently started on Into the Silence, an extremely rich and comprehensive exploration of Mallory’s expeditions on the mountain. But I’ve only just gotten out of WWI in Into the Silence, so the events of Above All Things are still many years into the future.
Even with my considerable lack of expertise, I could tell that the author had taken quite a bit of license with the chronology of the expedition. After two summit attempts, the expedition team retreats all the way to a monastery 10,000 feet below Camp VI to recuperate. They then return to the mountain peak for three more attempts to reach the summit – and all this seems to take place in less than a week. I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. It certainly didn’t happen in real life – the expedition had only three total attempts. The fictional visit to the monastery doesn’t really add anything to the story. Near as I can tell, the only purpose was to allow the Englishmen to see a tapestry foreshadowing their deaths. That’s…weak, and honestly quite pointless. It was little things like this, events that didn’t quite seem authentic, that kept me from fully embracing this novel.
When it came to describing the chill of the mountain, the bitter cold that could give men frostbite in minutes, Rideout’s words made me shiver. I could easily imagine the slashing wind and jagged ice, the terror of vertigo of great heights. It was exciting and terrifying. But always, at the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think: Why? When a Sherpa child dies from exposure, I wondered: What’s the point? When another man dies from elevation sickness, I shuddered: Is it worth it? It was very hard to maintain the aura of heroism in the Everest expedition, because after a while it just seems so foolish. Why would anybody want to punish themselves by going into regions man was clearly never meant to survive? It isn’t glorious or brave; by the end of the book it seems arrogance and a greed for immortality are the only things pushing Mallory forward, and it brings out the worst in him.
But obviously, there’s more to his determination than that. Mallory is wrestling with the loss of his brother Trafford*, who has come to represent the entire generation of young men lost to WWI. In his mind, their deaths have become linked to the expedition; if they succeed in reaching the mountain peak, it will somehow redeem the dead. It’s an attitude shared by his teammates, with the exception of the youngest, Sandy, who was too young to serve in the war. Sandy becomes interesting for this; because he did not live through the horrors of trench warfare, the deaths of the Sherpa men affect him far more than his compatriots. He is the only one who really reacts and expresses sorrow when they get sick or die. They are the only men on the team who are really developed: the other men remain bit characters who speak little and fade into the background behind the iron will and hopeful naïveté of Mallory and Sandy.
But what about Ruth? If this book tells the love story between Ruth and George Mallory, why am I not talking about her? Honestly, there just isn’t much to say about Ruth. While one narrative thread follows George for weeks, through his ill-fated expedition, the other follows Ruth through the course of a single day, as she goes about her chores. It just isn’t that interesting. Ruth has no personality beyond “wife of George”; she tells us constantly that she loves him so very, very much and wallows in memories of him, but not much actually happens during her day. The contrast of this extreme normalcy with the chaos of Mallory’s attempts to summit ought to draw me in, but instead it freezes me out.
I wanted to like this book, but while I enjoyed some aspects of Above All Things the overall experience left me cold. (Ha! Sorry.)
* This is another liberty of the author’s – not only was Trafford alive at the time, he outlived his brother George by two decades.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 2th…
2011: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
2010: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
2009: News: Book-Related Statistics