His­tor­i­cal thriller on Ever­est climbs to spell­bind­ing great­ness

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ger­ald Flood

WHEN we say some­thing is a “com­plete fic­tion” we usu­ally mean that it is a lie, be­gin­ning to end. And, of course, The Abom­inable, Amer­i­can au­thor Dan Sim­mons’ his­tor­i­cal thriller about five dar­ing friends climb­ing Mount Ever­est in 1925, one year af­ter Bri­tish climber Ge­orge Mal­lory fa­mously fell to his death there, is a fic­tion in the usual sense of the word.

But it also is “com­plete” in a dif­fer­ent mean­ing — it is sat­is­fy­ing in ev­ery way imag­in­able.

There are no loose ends, which is some­thing in a story as fan­tas­tic as this tale of moun­taineers pur­sued by nascent Nazis and abom­inable snow­men across Ti­bet and up Ever­est.

Ev­ery con­ceiv­able ob­jec­tion to the string of ex­tra­or­di­nary co­in­ci­dences, thrills, set­backs, tragedies and tri­umphs is plau­si­bly cov­ered off, from find­ing Mal­lory’s body 75 years be­fore its ac­tual dis­cov­ery, to ex­plain­ing how it is that not a word of this his­tory-chang­ing feat had leaked out — un­til now.

Oh, and along the way we dis­cover how, among other things, the ex­pe­di­tion in­volved a young Win­ston Churchill and pre­vented Hitler from in­vad­ing Bri­tain 20 years later dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

The Abom­inable takes read­ers to the cold­est, bleak­est, most hos­tile and yet most breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful place that man to then had been — Mount Ever­est, the un­charted Top of the World — a time when syn­thetic was just a word and climb­ing boots were hob­nailed.

As with The Ter­ror, Sim­mons’ 2007 imag­in­ing of the cruel and hor­ri­fy­ing fate of the Franklin ex­pe­di­tion, The Abom­inable is an in­ven­tion of such sto­ry­telling ge­nius that you can­not put it down once the first ice pick is planted — on Page 1 at the top of the Mat­ter­horn.

To best ap­pre­ci­ate how sub­limely clever Sim­mons has been in weav­ing his­tor­i­cal fact with fic­tion, it would be worth­while to first read Wade Davis’ Into the Si­lence: The Great War, Mal­lory and the Con­quest of Ever­est, a non-fic­tion ac­count of the lives and times that Sim­mons mines in this his 28th novel.

But it’s not nec­es­sary to do so. Mal­lory comes to life, even in death, and we are in­tro­duced to many of his real-life col­leagues as the he­roes of The Abom­inable un­der­take their im­pos­si­ble jour­ney to 29,029 feet.

The nar­ra­tor is Amer­i­can climber Ja­cob Wil­liam Perry. Sim­mons ex­plains in an “in­tro­duc­tion” that he met “Jake” in 1991 at a re­tire­ment home in Colorado while do­ing cold-weather re­search for The Ter­ror. Jake even­tu­ally sends Sim­mons a “tes­ta­ment,” which Sim­mons pub­lishes as The Abom­inable.

The ad­ven­ture be­gins with Jake, French moun­tain guide Jean Claude Clairoux (J.C.), and English poet and First World War hero Richard Davis Dea­con (the Dea­con) climb­ing in the Alps. The Dea­con re­veals that he has been asked by stu­pen­dously rich Lady Queens­bury to go to Ever­est and re­cover the body of her son, who dis­ap­peared on the moun­tain a year ear­lier in the com­pany of a pur­ported low-life rake and bounder while seem­ingly in pur­suit of Mal­lory’s ill-fated ex­pe­di­tion.

What­ever was the young lord do­ing fol­low­ing Mal­lory up Ever­est? What in­deed? Was it worth dy­ing for on a moun­tain where sun­stroke and frost­bite threaten si­mul­ta­ne­ously, where a slip means cer­tain death by hideous smash­ing dis­mem­ber­ment, where Bud­dhists warn of an­gry yeti stalk­ing the ice­fields and where there is nowhere to run from mur­der­ous fas­cist thugs but straight up be­yond the clouds?

The an­swers to th­ese ques­tions — and the rid­dle of what could be more abom­inable than a snow­man — are de­liv­ered by Sim­mons in 672 spell­bind­ing pages. Ger­ald Flood is the Free Press Com­ment ed­i­tor.

The Abom­inable By Dan Sim­mons Lit­tle Brown and Co., 672 pages,

$31

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