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Book review: "Above All Things," Tanis Rideout

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Canadian writer, Tanis Rideout, grew up in Kingston, but her first novel, Above All Things, takes her far away from Lake Ontario.

Rideout writes about George Mallory, his fateful climb up Mt. Everest in 1924, and his wife Ruth waiting at home in Cambridge, England.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Tanis Rideout uses fiction to chronicle the love interests of the famous British mountaineer, George Mallory. Mallory had two loves: his wife, Ruth, and his mountain, Everest.

In 1924 Mallory participated in his third expedition to Mt. Everest. The second one had ended in disaster when seven sherpas fell to their deaths in an avalanche. This time the British team hoped to finally gain the summit of the world’s highest mountain, and George Mallory was determined to be one of the first men on top of the world.

Rideout alternates chapters between George Mallory on the mountain, struggling against the cold and low oxygen, and his wife Ruth at home in Cambridge, England, with their three young children. George fights against frostbite and the frailty of the human body at 28,000 feet, while in the green richness of summer in England, Ruth has been alone since George left in February. She waits every day for the postman, hoping for a letter from her husband. She knows that far away in the Himalayas the expedition has already left the high mountains, turned back by the monsoon snow. The letters will be weeks old when they finally arrive in England with news.

Does it work, this love story combined with a mountain climbing adventure? I found the Everest chapters much more compelling than Ruth’s sad wait, but Rideout did make the love story strong. She traveled to Cambridge to read the Mallory’s letters, hundreds of them, and she writes in an afterward, “Being able to see them as they were, to hear them speak in their own words and in their private moments, gave me the confidence to allow them to be who they needed to be on the page.”

The expedition itself is like a romantic, tragic novel. The group didn’t succeed on their first attempt to climb to the summit and went back down to a monastery, at a mere 16,000 feet, to rest and make new plans. Two pairs were chosen to make the next attempts and both groups had to turn around, half dead from the cold.

Finally, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine make one last attempt at the summit, assisted by heavy canisters of oxygen. “It’s all suffering,” [George] remembered telling Ruth in a weaker moment. “That’s all there is to climbing mountains. Suffering. You only need to be better at it than everyone else.”

Rideout is excellent at ratcheting up the tension as the men get higher up on the mountain. The thin air makes them hallucinate and they make poor decisions. I kept urging them to turn around. And as no one knows what really happened to Mallory and Irvine, I was curious how Rideout would write about their final moments. No spoiler, but it was well done.

I did wish Above All Things had included a map of the mountain, or a photo of Ruth and George. I had to hunt out a few other books to find a likeness of George Mallory and his giant young companion, Sandy Irvine. Most of the photographs in non-fiction books about the early expeditions to Everest show group photos of the young explorers, standing in rows in their tweed jackets. Other photos show endless sweeps of rock and ice up to the windblown summit of Everest. But one book included a photo of  George and Ruth together, their eyes wide and beautiful, looking at the camera with bittersweet smiles. When I looked at that photo, their tragic love story meant more than all the tallest mountains on earth.

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