Above All Things by Tanis Rideout – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice

Canada, we know, abounds in writing talent and another promising and possibly major writer is emerging in Tanis Rideout, who this spring published her debut novel Above All Things. Above All Things is a venture into biographical fiction, in the manner of Hillary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) Kate Taylor (Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen) and Canada’s own Charlotte Gray (Mrs. King, Sisters in the Wilderness, Flint and Feather).

Rideout has chosen as her topic the 1924 British Everest Expedition, with its characters, the charismatic George Mallory, an experienced and famous climber, innovative engineering student Sandy Irvine, and experienced mountaineersHoward Somervell,Edward “Teddy” NortonNoel Odell,Bentley Beethamand John de Vere Hazard.The story is told throught the eyes of Mallory and Irvine in particular and, by justaposition, through Mallory’s wife Ruth who remains at home in Cambridge, England, raising Mallory’s three young children.

Rideout has chosen a blow by blow tale of the climb, the reader feeling truly there on Everest with the climbers, sharing their bodies in the cold, their frustrations, disappointments and rare moments of elation. She has a gift for describing in minute, but always fascinating, detail the experience of the climbers, holding us against the mountain, as they were held. One would think that she has experienced the climb herself, but no, she is simply a meticulous researcher.

By contrast, alternate chapters take us to Cambridge England where Mallory’s wife Ruth is coping alone with three small children. Frustrated, lonely and at times afraid, she is followed by the reader through a single day of her life from morning to an evening dinner party.

In some ways the juxtapostion is odd; we are following Mallory through weeks of slog and toil in Tibet, but the chapters in England follow a single day, however, it works, possibly because there is an underlying recognition that Ruth’s days repeat one another while no two days on Everest are the same. Any news Ruth receives about the trek will arrive weeks after it happens so time is telescoped through the reliance of ships and traditional mail.

Through Ruth’s reminiscences of her marriageand through George’s own actions in the novel, he is revealed as earnest but selfish, a glory seeker at the cost of others, as well as himself.Without stating so directly, Rideout shows the vanity of the climb to the summit.George is pursuing this goal for the fame it will bring to him and the opportunities which will release him from a life of teaching. His ruthlessness in this quest is evident in the repeated abandonment of his wife and young children in pursuit of his goal. His father,a clergyman who reminds him of the irresponsibility of his quest creates a strong counterpoint toHinks, the Chairman of the “Everest Committee” which finances the attempt. Hinks states at the Ruth Mallory dinner party “What a chance for King and Country, et? The third Pole. Lost the other two tot he Yanks and the Norwegians. We need this one?”The prestige of a conquest for England is irresitible.

The first World War plays its part in this drama. Many of the climbers are veterans of the war and the attempt to summit Everest is a way of expiating their guilt for being alive and of exorcising the demons visited upon them in the fields of France. Mallory calls it “A chance to make it up to all those in the war.”

George is revealed as a talented mountaineer, but, as another character states, reckless. The ultimate tragedy of the climb is foreshadowed in the small, careless mistakes that George makes that thwart success. A single line highlights his reluctance to take responsibility for his errors. Still smarting over accusations that he caused the death of seven sherpas in an avalanche on an earlier climb, he tries to shift blame when castigated for leaving open a canteen of water during an assault on the mountain, an accident which soaks his climbing mate and deprives them of vital water for the attempt, forcing them to turn back.

“Teddy’s disappointment was palpable “You shouldn’t have left it open, George”

“You shouldn’t have knocked it over” states George.

No apology for a mistake that denied them both the assault on the summit. This is, of course, a fictional conversation and it is Rideout’s talent that makes this one line so revealing.

I recalled the Mallory attempt on Everest and the fact that Edmund Hillary was credited with the first successful attempt in 1953, however, I did not recall Mallory’s fate. I purposely did not research the result of the 1924 expedition until after I finished the book. Not knowing the denouement heightened the drama of the book, however, even if you know the ending, the book is exciting. I suggest that if you do not know the result of the expedition, you read the book first, then look up the facts. Rideout is true to the outcome, although she does shift other factual events to suit her narrative. She states on her website

“I have taken the historical personage of George Mallory and his friends, family and fellow explorers and used them as a jumping off point. All the research, all the desire to have facts at the tips of my fingers is in an attempt to create a world coloured and detailed and rich that the reader can immerse themselves in. No doubt, some who are familiar with the Mallory story will notice inaccuracies, changes and fictions. I hope, that even for those, these distractions will not prove too grave and that the emotional experience that the story delivers will be worth it.”

Tanis Rideout delivers a strong emotional experience. It has been said that literature is the hot truth and history the cold truth. It doesn’t get much hotter than Above All Things, in spite of the freezing cold on the mountain.