Readers will be as seduced and compelled by reading Tanis Rideout’s “Above All Things” (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 385 pages, $26.95) as famed British mountaineer George Mallory was about reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
Rideout has crafted a mesmerizing, realistic and deeply moving historic novel that takes readers not just on the physically and emotionally brutal journey from England to India and then, finally, to the Himalayas in Tibet, but into the physically and emotionally passionate relationship between Mallory and his wife, Ruth, who is devastated by her husband’s decision to attempt to ascend the deadly Everest a third time: “You say you love us, George. Me and the children. And I believe you. But every time you’re asked to choose, you choose the mountain. Do you know how that feels? And if you go again now, where does it end?”
Those familiar with history know how it ends for the real-life Mallory: On June 8, 1924, he and his young, exuberant climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, roused before dawn with the rest of their party to attempt the final leg of the climb. Throughout Rideout’s version there is a sense of inevitable doom. But her skilled, insightful storytelling also contains the hope, determination and sometimes forced optimism that kept Mallory moving up the mountain and, at home in England, Ruth moving through each day. Mallory may be the primary focus, but “Above All Things” is clearly Ruth’s story, too. It’s also the story of a complex and committed marriage that illustrates how individual drives, desires and choices can affect those we love.
Lush language and rich descriptions create a vivid picture of the harsh, draining and sometimes mind-losing conditions Mallory faced. Sometimes unable to get out of bed as she waits for word on her husband’s return, Ruth’s pain, anger and desperation — under the guise of optimism she wears for her children and friends — is palpable. Rideout uses alternating perspectives to interweave George’s physical struggles on Everest with Ruth’s struggles at home. Sections written from Sandy’s perspective also provide broader observations about the trek and its effects on all involved.
Rideout said she “read and watched and listened to absolutely everything I could get my hands on” about Everest and the Mallorys to write “Above All Things.” These materials included not just biographies and papers kept in the archives at the Royal Geographical Society, which sponsored Mallory’s three expeditions, but Mallory’s, Ruth’s and Irvine’s diaries and the many intimate letters Mallory and Ruth exchanged.
The result of this painstaking research is a moving, confident novel that — like Mallory and all who’ve scaled Everest — reaches great heights. “Above All Things” is a thoughtful, sensual, breathtaking debut sure to appeal to adventure, romance and historic fiction lovers alike.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.