What drives a person to do incredible feats is an important question about the human condition. Why does a person do a certain task when it seems impossible to do. How do the people feel around that person while he/she is trying to accomplish the impossible? And what occurs in the mind of that person if he/she should happen to fail to reach that goal? That is some of the important points Tanis Rideout explores in her brilliant novel Above All Things.
1920 – Page 1
“Tell me the story of Everest,” she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face, creasing the corners of her eyes. “Tell me about this mountain that’s stealing you away from me.”
George and Ruth sat on the drawing room floor, laughing and tipsy, dinner growing cold on the table in the next room. Ruth was cross-legged opposite him, her grey skirt pulled tight across her knees. She picked up the single sheet of thick, ivory paper from her lap and reread the invitation from the newly formed Everest Committee again. “My husband, the world famous explorer.” Ruth held up her glass of wine and he reached out with his own, the crystal ringing in the lamplit room. She was fairly bursting with happiness.
” I like the sound of that,” George said and let himself imagine what it would be like to have people thinking about him, talking about him. The opportunities the success on Everest would bring. “I might be able to leave teaching, maybe even write full time. We could travel,” he said. “Have our own adventures.”
After discovering Rideout’s poetry and blogging about her work here, it was suggested that I look at her novel. She has a talent with words. The plot deals with the real-life story of George Mallory and his attempt to be the first man to conquer Mount Everest.
It had been ten days since they made landfall at Bombay and now, on the day they were to leave Darjeeling, heading northwards through the Mahabharat Range and into Tibet, George woke with a hangover. Hoping to burn off the worst of the headache, he forced himself out into the misty morning to run along the Teesta – the slow wide river that edged the hamlet and it terraced tea plantations.
His head throobed with each step, and he gritted his teeth against it. This was how it would feel to work at altitude – that painful and foggy. The muddy riverbank sucked at his feet, and his legs burned as he dragged them free. His body was loose and lazy, but eventually he found his stride, gulping at the clean, wet air. Musty and rich.
The journey here had been a slow drift through the seasons – he could barely remember the damp, February weight of Cambridge, of London. then they had slipped past the coast of France and into the humid spring of the Mediterranean. Now they were leaving the dry summer blaze of India and would soon enter the high Himalayan winter. there everything would be grey and white, the colour stripped from the landscape, tinted only by the rising or setting sun. For the moment, he basked in the lush green of the tea plantations. He would miss the first burst of spring green back home. It would be late summer before he returned.
Rideout has captured the emotions of the people in her book well. Not only does she look at the climbers as they try to scale the mountain, but she looks at the family members of back home as they wait for news on the climb.
There are footsteps climbing the stone stairs outside the door. The shadow of a man through the coloured panes of glass. A pause. Waiting in the gloomy entryway. I hold my breath and the shadow freezes, bent slightly at the waist as if he’s heard me, knows that I’m here. Then he bends out of sight and there’s the clink of glass against glass. Not the post, then. Of course not. It’s too early for the post. I haven’t let myself glance at any of the clocks yet, but now I know. Only five in the morning. the milk delivered like clockwork. If only the postman was as reliable.
The shadow retreats, taking his footsteps with him, down the stairs and the walk, into the road, and I retreat too, back into the house.
Rideout has dedicated “mountains” of time and research to this story. And the emotions she has charted in this book makes it a strong read.
Author’s Note – Pages 353-354
Above All Things is a work of fiction inspired by historical events. When I first encountered the stories of the early Everest expeditions, I didn’t even have the facts; all I had was the myth.
I was first introduced to the story of George Mallory while working at a local outfitter, selling climbing and camping gear. There was a television set on the shop floor that played gear videos, mountain movies, and adventure documentaries. My favourite documentary was one that showed black-and-white footage of the earliest attempts to climb Mt. Everest. That was how I first saw George Mallory: in pith helmet and knee socks, crossing the Himalaya. From the very start, that image and the story of his disappearance had me hooked.
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout is a emotional and well-thought out read. Anybody who looks at literature for an understanding into the human condition should savour this book very carefully. It is an enlightening and enjoyable read.