“For the stone from the top for geologists, the knowledge of the limits of endurance for the doctors, but above all for the spirit of adventure to keep alive the soul of man.”
- George Mallory on climbing Mount Everest.
George Mallory is one of the most famous mountaineers in the history of mankind. He is known not only for his quotes (he was the man who responded "because it's there" when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest), but also for his disappearance during a summit attempt on Everest in 1924.
Tanis Rideout was born in Belgium, but grew up in Bermuda and Canada. Above All Things was her debut novel, published in 2012. It is the fictional (but based in fact) account of Mallory's 1924 attempt at Everest.
I heard about this book a few years ago during a phase I went through where I was completely obsessed with all things mountaineering. I would watch documentaries and read books and scroll through Wikipedia for hours. I, of course, came across the story of George Mallory, and, like so many other people, became enthralled with figuring out what had happened to him during his attempt on Everest.
Rideout approaches the story of George Mallory from a different perspective than most other writers. She tells his story through the character of Mallory's wife, whom he left behind when he went to try to become the first person to successfully climb the highest mountain on earth.
As someone who finds mountaineering fascinating, I have always been slightly bothered by the idea of men and women leaving their families to go do an activity that they know could very well kill them. Something about it seems selfish. At the same time, I understand that there is something in the sport that draws people to want to accomplish the most daring feats, and I can respect the determination these athletes have to succeed.
Above All Things deals with some of the aspects of mountain climbing that I find troubling. In one particularly moving passage, Rideout explores the desire to climb a deadly mountain, something that I myself can not understand. The book relies heavily on the themes of family, sacrifice, and determination.
Above All Things is a fun read. It took me a while to finish because it doesn't have the same kind of page-turning tension as a thriller. It unfolds slowly and dramatically. By the last 100 pages I was definitely more hooked than I had been at the beginning. I had a few moments where I wasn't sure that I'd finish the entire book, but I was reeled back in by Rideout's beautiful writing style and several passages that interested me.
"Already it had cost them so much. Eleven dead so far. Seven in the avalanche. Others to frostbite and malaria, mountain sickness. Maybe there wasn't any way to measure the value of a life. But wasn't it important to risk something if you believed in the end goal? ... Maybe nothing was worth dying for. It was all foolishness, vain quests, and ambitions of glory - for themselves, for King and Country. But if there was nothing worth dying for, neither could there be anything worth living for."
I'm always a little skeptical when it comes to historical fiction. I was especially skeptical about reading a fictional telling of George Mallory's disappearance and death because it's such a well-known, well-covered story. This book pleasantly surprised me. It didn't pretend to be completely factual, and Rideout managed to dramatize the story without overdoing it. My one criticism is that the book dragged a bit in the middle. I started to wanted to skip ahead to the last hundred pages.
Above All Things is overall a good book. Solid writing, an engaging and interesting story, and a lot of cool history and adventure. If you like adventure novels or historical fiction, you'll definitely want to have a go at this one.
If you like this you might also like:
- Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer: This is a non-fiction book about the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest that killed several climbers. Krakauer, an accomplished mountaineer, is a survivor of the disaster and he explains what went wrong during the summit attempt. It is a wonderfully written book, but a devastating read. It is exciting and nerve-wracking and ultimately a testament to what humans can and cannot endure.
- Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains by Jon Krakauer.