Above All Things, By Tanis Rideout

 

The story of George Mallory, the dashing mountaineer and Bloomsbury-set member who disappeared attempting the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, would seem to write itself.

Mallory, with his young climbing partner Andrew Irvine, endured howling winds, inhuman temperatures and a near-starvation diet in their bid to become the first to conquer the world's highest mountain. It was Mallory's third attempt and, along with the other members of the Expedition, reputations were at stake.

The months leading up to those mysterious last few hours drive the central narrative of Tanis Rideout's debut novel. Rideout has used the material evidence of Mallory's love for his wife, Ruth – her photograph was found in his pocket when his body was discovered in 1999 – to build her story.

The novel intertwines the stories of Mallory up the mountain, braving its gothic horrors and preternatural delights, with Ruth endlessly waiting at their Cambridge home. The story moves dreamily from their immediate daily routines to meditate on their relationship, the meaning of love and George's obsessive, masculine need for the mountains.

Deeply fascinating are the travails of the Expedition, where the climbers battled altitude sickness and were responsible for hundreds of Sherpas who made the whole mad venture possible. Rideout draws a frank parallel between the First World War and the men's motives for risking their lives. The team describe their race to claim Everest as Britain's "last crowning jewel", a much-needed boost to Britain's waning empire.

Mallory on Everest is inherently interesting and Rideout keeps the tension going, but the chapters in Cambridge are less successful. Ruth, at home with three small children, in this telling does little but wait. Here, the plot lags and Rideout's writing is littered with anachronisms and infelicities: "a window of good weather", or the North American "pants" for trousers. Rideout hasn't quite pulled off the stylistic trick of re-creating an era's language and making the story her own.

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