Seldom is a first novel as polished as Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things, about George Mallory’s final attempt, in 1924, to climb Mount Everest. Rideout blends fact and fiction in her narrative, creating insight into the challenge the mountain presented and the determination of the men dedicated to reaching the peak.
In our modern age, and notwithstanding the tragedies that can still befall Everest adventurers, it’s tempting to downplay the dangers the early climbers faced, but Rideout refuses to allow readers to do so. The majesty of the world’s highest peak is captivating, and Rideout has managed skilfully to capture both the actions and thoughts of George and his crew.
In a move reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, Rideout counterpoints the Mallory expedition’s struggles with a day in the life of Mrs. Mallory, preparing for a dinner party back home in England with her children. Both George and his wife, Ruth, are deeply challenged by their respective lives. George cannot let go of his need to best Everest. (He’s the one who, when asked why he felt he had to climb the mountain, famously answered, “Because it’s there.”) Rideout does a superb job imagining (with the help of copious research, including letters between husband and wife) the mental state of a man driven to leave his family for months on end and place himself and others in extreme danger as a result of his almost mystical connection with a mountain.
No less engaging is the story of Ruth’s more interior battle. That she and George are deeply in love is clear. But as proud of him as she is, Ruth wishes he would remain at home, in the role of husband and father. She feels she is competing with Everest for her husband’s affections. And that the mountain is winning.
I loved this novel. Even though the outcome is known, Rideout’s beautiful prose and masterful storytelling elevate the book above the stacks of other recent novels.