As a child, Margot Talbot frequently got locked out of the house by her mother, ostensibly to “teach her to play outdoors.” This is far from the height of abuse and neglect the young girl suffered. Her father taught her how to half fill a Coke can with rum as they sat in the car together, so he could more easily drink and drive undetected. Life went downhill from there, until Talbot learned to climb great heights both physically and metaphorically. All That Glitters recounts a transition from tormented child to angry adult to enlightened athlete.
Today, Talbot is a professional alpine ice climber who also works with at-risk youth and addictions programs, in addition to running a mental-health consultancy. In her debut work of non-fiction, she outlines the origins of her intimate knowledge of each of those topics. While the book includes occasional pacing missteps, it’s elevated by clear, direct prose and a willingness to unflinchingly confront her psychological stumbles and falls.
Talbot’s father is a problem drinker from a troubled family background, and her mother’s deep chronic depression manifests through days spent hidden from the world. An aggressive tomboy growing up, Talbot eventually escapes to university, where she supplements her own blackout drinking with dropping acid.
Escape is a recurring theme – she moves from town to town, engaging in myriad misadventures with macho men. Over the course of the narrative, it becomes clearer to the reader what Talbot is running from: the deep pain of her traumatic childhood, some details of which had been blocked from her conscious memory. But an instance of jail time for selling cannabis marks a turning point.
This is no simple story of an unfortunate ne’er-do-well transformed through the redemptive power of teetotalling. All That Glitters resists a simplistic framing of drugs as bad, sobriety as good. Throughout the story – which includes a fascinating digression about a romantic relationship with a high-level international drug dealer – the author delivers a self-aware interrogation of her own actions. She seeks a greater understanding, frequently reaching out for professional help. But as her experience with ice climbing grows, the internal sustenance it provides diminishes her need for drugs and alcohol. Her journey takes her to the highest peak in Antarctica and back home again.
Talbot excels when taking the reader along with her from roughneck bars to isolated nature retreats, and she explains the technical details of ice climbing in a way that is easily digestible. When drawing insights from her experience, she falls victim to the occasional awkward metaphor, unnecessary because her story essentially speaks for itself. And the tale’s timeline could use a bit of calibration: the aforementioned drug dealer gets a whole chapter, but then the relationship she describes as her most serious merits only a few pages.
But these are quibbles seen in light of the author’s accomplishment. She is a captivating storyteller and will inspire readers to see that the path to recovery is both uphill and rarely simple.