I was sent a copy of Above All Things by Tanis Rideout as part of Brit Mums' Book Club. It's the story of the 1924 British attempt to climb Mount Everest, and is written from three different perspectives: Andrew Irvine, George Mallory, and Mallory's wife, Ruth.
I have to be honest; I've not finished this book. I've really struggled with it, which seems completely at odds with all of the other Book Club members! I'm about half way through it now, and I'm not sure whether I'll manage to finish it. I have a short attention span when it comes to fiction, and if it weren't for the fact this was a Book Club book, I'm not sure it would have kept my attention past the first couple of chapters.
1924 was the second expedition to Everest. Mallory had been on the 1922 attempt, as well as the 1921 exploration expedition. In the book he is portrayed as someone who lived for climbing, and saw Everest as the ultimate challenge; he could not turn down the opportunity of climbing the mountain and reaching its summit. He is the man who, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, famously answered: "because it's there."
Irvine, on the other hand, is the fresh-faced newbie. He's climbed mountains before, but only small ones. He looks up to Mallory, and wants to prove that just because he's never attempted Everest before, it doesn't mean he can't do it.
The third person we hear from, Mallory's wife, is just depressing! She loves her husband and finds it difficult to cope in his absence, despite having three children to care for. She seems to spend a lot of time moping after him.
I feel it's the sections concerning Mallory's wife that let this book down. From the Author's Note at the back of the book, I know that the question of what it must have been like to be married to Mallory and essentially take second place to a mountain, was what captured Rideout's imagination in the first place. For me, as a single mother used to just getting on with things, Ruth infuriates me. I want to slap her around the face and say "he's gone to climb a bloody mountain; stop bawling and get on with your life!"
One thing that struck me about this book was the concept of what they were actually doing, back in 1924. Long before camping shops and specialist climbing equipment really existed, before satellite phones and weather reports and lightweight fleece long-johns to keep you warm on the side of a mountain were anywhere near invented, this group of men decided to try and reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain. They had little clue what lay in wait for them; there were no maps, and they could only make the attempt from Tibet on the north side of the mountain, as Nepal on the south was closed to all Westerners. Furthermore, since the 1922 attempt had been abandoned when an avalanche they had caused killed seven porters, they knew there was a high risk of death. But off they went.
For me, whenever someone writes a novel based on historical fact, I spend large amounts of time reading a paragraph and then thinking well how do you know that happened? With some books, it's easy to just detach from the reality, and pretend it's just a novel like any other - but with this, it's such a famous story I really find that I can't do that.
I know that in order to write this novel, Rideout embarked on an awful lot of research. I don't doubt that she's got the general facts about the expedition correct, and I love the fact that at the end of April this year, she tweeted photos and facts about the expedition that happened 90 years previously on those very days. I don't dispute that she knows her subject; my problem is that there is so much she would have had to speculate about.
Spoiler alert: don't read past here if you don't know what happened on the 1924 Everest expedition.
Nobody knows what happened to Mallory and Irvine on the 8th of June. The closest we have is Noel Odell's account from 2,000 feet below them, believing he saw them on the ridge above... but they were never seen again. There is hope that, if Irvine's body is ever found, it will have with it the camera not found with Mallory's body in 1999. The hope is that the extreme cold will have preserved the film in the camera, and we might finally be able to tell whether they reached the summit.
When reading this book, I get that feeling in my stomach; the one you get when you watch a movie you've seen fifty times, and you know what happens but when it comes to that pivotal point you still have that glimmer of hope that perhaps this time, it won't.
The scenes on the mountain are magnificently written; you really get an understanding of what the altitude sickness must have felt like. Rideout does well at reminding us of not just the conditions they were facing, but also the time in which they were doing it: no weather reports, no satellite phones or navigation. Letters between the climbers and their families at home were months in between. Little things, like when they find the camp they made last time, makes you realise things that had never occurred to you before - that when they had made previous attempts, they'd just abandoned their tents and equipment as they descended the mountain. I'm not sure I had imagined them packing it all away like a family at the end of a camping weekend, but the idea of stumbling across the remains of a tent and some cans of food years later on the side of a mountain was strange.
One thing this book has done is make me want to find out more about the expedition; I would love to see more photos and to read a more factual account. I know that when Mallory's body was found, they also found various notes and letters; I would love to be able to read them and the other notes from the expedition and to read more about what went on. Another thing I find fascinating is the story of Maurice Wilson; he is mentioned briefly in the book (with a certain amount of artistic license, since he didn't even attempt Everest until 10 years after Mallory and Irvine) but I'd love to know more about why and how he decided to just wander off and climb Everest alone.
I'll leave you with this film of the 1924 ascent:
Note: I was provided with a copy of Above All Things free of charge, but that was not dependent on my writing a favourable review. All words and opinions are my own.