Peak performance from debutant
When I teach creative writing, I quote from the Staples Singers’ song I’ll Take You There. That’s the job of a writer, I tell my students, to take us there.
It’s what Toronto author Tanis Rideout does so well in her glorious debut novel, Above All Things. She takes us to a place few of us will ever have the opportunity or the courage to visit: the heights of Mount Everest.
This historical novel is based on the story of George Mallory’s 1924 attempt to scale the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Rideout is so adept at capturing the arduousness of the ascent that sometimes, reading about it is excruciating.
Mallory makes a fascinating subject. He is, by his own admission, obsessed with Everest, telling his wife, Ruth, “I have to do this. … It’s my mountain.”
The famous climber knew better than anyone the risks involved. His 1924 attempt was his third. On the previous trip, he lost seven Sherpas in an avalanche. The higher he and his team go, the more challenging the terrain and the more severe the physical symptoms, including vertigo, nausea, headaches and lethargy.
Mallory himself does not fully understand the hold Everest has on him. In a candid moment, he tells Ruth, “It’s all suffering. … That’s all there is to climbing mountains. … You only need to be better at it than anyone else.”
As the air grows thinner, Mallory is haunted by memories from the trenches of the First World War. What, he wonders, was his responsibility to his fellow soldiers? He’ll ask a similar question during the climb, especially in relation to Sandy Irvine, the youngest member of his team.
Rideout takes us into Mallory and Irvine’s heads. But Above All Things also tells another less dramatic, but equally compelling story: a day in the life of Ruth Mallory, who is ensconced with her three children in Cambridge, England. Ruth both adores and resents her spouse. “It’s humiliating,” she tells a friend, “to come second to a mountain.”
Her chapters provide a welcome respite from those about the treacherous climb. Yet Ruth’s pain is as palpable as her husband’s.
Approaching the summit, Mallory has a hallucination in which his father appears to him. Mallory Senior’s words will haunt his son, and readers, too: “You’ve always been focused on what’s out there, George. It’s high time you focused on what’s here.”
Toronto writer Tanis Rideout has made a glorious debut.
Above All Things