Above All Things by Tanis Rideout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You don't need to be a mountain climber to get hooked on the subject, especially when it comes to Mount Everest. Three years ago I read Jon Krakauer's
Into Thin Air
and was hooked. Since then I have read seven more books on Everest, followed online coverage each season, and watched a handful of films. However, Above All Things is the first dedicated piece of Everest fiction I have read. Though I was intrigued by author Tanis Rideout's NPR interview plugging the book, it left me suspicious. Her qualifications, historical knowledge and mountaineering experience, seemed limited.
Nevertheless, I snatched up my public library's copy and gave it a chance. After all, I find the legend of ill-fated George Mallory as engrossing as any fan of Everest literature does. The chance to experience his story as historical fiction, and the story of his wife Ruth, was irresistable. From page one, I was encouraged by Ms. Rideout's narrative style. The delivery is delightfully straightforward and focused.
The novel's major drawback, initially at least, is the choice to limit Ruth Mallory's plotline to a single day. While it affords readers great insight into the plight of loved ones waiting for news, it means much of the story is excruciatingly stationary. Rideout compensates for this with increasing effectiveness as the novel progresses and the characters develop. In particular, she includes a pivotal supporting character named Will. His turbulent bond with George, revealed in flashback, and the exquisite affection he exhibits for Ruth in the present, provide tension and flow to scenes that would otherwise be nothing but relentless waiting.
After a slow start, I read the latter two-thirds of Above All Things in a single day. This is comparable to my experience with other Everest books. Even readers get summit fever. As Rideout and her characters press into situations undocumented by history, she keeps the novel on task by exploring post-war national angst, as well as the competing pulls of familial commitments and personal quests. By her own admission, Rideout takes some significant liberties with the facts but does so for the sake of effective storytelling. Her depiction of the final summit bid is mesmerizing. At any time, this book is on the verge of plummeting into schmaltzy romance. Yet, through good writing, empathetic characters, and with the help of an irresistible legend, Rideout offers up a novel well worth reading.
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