Every work of literature is a story of survival, a battle against fate or a struggle for love. “The Steady Running of the Hour” is all three. Part love story, part mystery, part race across Europe, Justin Go’s debut novel takes us from the muddy trenches of World War I to the snowy peak of Mount Everest to the fjords of Iceland, all in the service of love. It is a multilayered odyssey that clips along and is hard to put down.
Tristan Campbell has just graduated from college when he hears he may be the beneficiary of a strangely crafted will. To cash in, Tristan must prove he is the great-grandson of Imogen Soames-Anderson and Ashley Walsingham. Walsingham, a British military officer and mountaineer, died in 1924 on Mount Everest, leaving his estate to Imogen and her descendants. Imogen and Ashley had a brief fling before Ashley shipped off for World War I. Did they have a daughter? Was this daughter Tristan’s great-grandmother?
With seven weeks to find out, Tristan traces his ancestors’ footsteps across Europe, sleeping in youth hostels, befriending Mireille, an art student, and learning along the way the drawbacks of monomaniacal pursuits.
The novel possesses speed and density as chapters alternate between past and present, between Tristan’s life now and his great-grandparents’ 80 years ago. As Tristan uncovers clues in one chapter, the next fleshes out those clues via the perspectives of Imogen and Ashley. In fact, Tristan’s quest so echoes Ashley’s obsessiveness that we wonder whether Tristan is being preternaturally propelled.
Tristan is a romantic and thoroughly engaging narrator on a mission. Ashley, too, was a man dedicated to ineffable pursuits: the honor of war, the conquering of Everest, True Love.
The title is taken from Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” in which a soldier descends, Odysseus-like, into a subterranean barracks where a spectral figure warns: “I went hunting wild / After the wildest beauty in the world, / Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, / But mocks the steady running of the hour … ” Like Owen’s character, Ashley similarly encounters a dying soldier in a scene that will stick in your brain long after the plot fades.
Stories told in present tense are often forward motion without depth, but Go straddles the decades with profound verisimilitude. In one chapter we are on the battlefield in World War I (where “there is the searing gas that blisters skin and turns eyes into vacant clouded orbs”), in another we are privy to Tristan’s doubts (“I’m going after a huge fortune and I’m acting like a freshman researching a term paper”), in another we are on Everest, where Ashley’s “goggles have fogged opaque and [are] crusted with ice.” The result is satisfying. When I finished, I wanted immediately to start it again.
Christine Brunkhorst is a writer and critic in Minneapolis.