Above All Things by Tanis Rideout
In an author’s note at the end of Above All Things, Tanis Rideout admits to falling in love with George Mallory. It is impossible not to admire the beautiful Mallory, who climbed with serpentine grace, discovered and named the Western Cwm, and was one of the first explorers of Mount Everest. In 1921, Mallory searched Everest for months, looking for a path to the summit. In 1924, he died there.
Above All Things is an elegant and well-researched novel about Mallory and his wife, Ruth, in the months leading up to Mallory’s last adventure. Rideout weaves together hundreds of letters and random items (receipts, ripped pages of books) in a gripping and precise account of Mallory’s life. Ruth and George fell in love on a trip to Italy, each of them young and lovely. Rideout describes their marriage as one full of desire and intimacy, although she also drops hints about Mallory’s youthful infatuation with James Strachey, Lytton’s brother. Ruth lives in a dreamworld when George is away for months at a time, and sees life with their three children through a haze. She worries in letters to George that she is not a good mother. Novels don’t typically have photos and letters, but the book feels so real that is a disappointment not to have copies of their photos and letters tucked inside.
Mallory’s life on Everest is the strongest part of the book. Here we meet Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, the youngest member of the climbing team and a mechanical genius. It is Irvine who revolutionizes the oxygen bottles the team is reluctant to carry, and it is Irvine who goes with Mallory on June 8, 1924, on the final, doomed push from Camp 6 to the summit.
Rideout does a brilliant job with the last hours of the climb. Noel Odell, the expedition’s geologist, was below the men and found a fossil, looked up, and famously sighted two black dots, Mallory and Irvine, moving up higher on the mountain. Odell always believed they were ascending the Second Step. Rideout makes the wise decision to accept Odell’s statement – not every climber does – and she imagines the rest. Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999, and Rideout uses that forensic information to describe how Mallory died. Readers and climbers alike can only hope Irvine’s body and camera will be found as well. Debate will continue until then on whether or not the men summitted, and the book doesn’t presume to answer the question.
Mallory’s death is revealed back home in tragic details, such as his three-year-old son’s limp, and the flare of anger Ruth feels when she has to the tell the children the truth. Many readers will feel compelled, as I did, to watch Conrad Anker’s team discover and bury Mallory’s body, rope around his waist, and one distinctive hob-nailed boot still dug into the scree.
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 400 pp., $26.95)