Book Review: Above All Things by Tanis Rideout
Let’ get this out of the way first. I won’t lie. Part of the reason I picked up this book is that since we both have the same last name, I can read the praise on the outside back cover (“Rideout has that all-too-desirable quality most authors strive for”) and pretend for a second that it’s about me. And then, after that small exercise in narcissism, I can of course agree with all those blurbs that Above All Things is indeed a well-crafted and captivating novel.
Summary: Basically, the novel is the story of George Mallory’s fatal obsession with Mount Everest, with historical gaps filled in by the imagination. He tries not once, not twice, but three times to conquer the mountain, leaving a wife and three small children behind for months at a time. The novel mainly focuses on that crucial final attempt in 1924– the toll that it takes on George and the toll that it takes on everyone he left behind. Historians are divided as to whether Mallory made it to the top on his final endeavor, so there is at least one part of the ending that will be a surprise!
Review: It is beautifully written (at times the prose is a bit too flowery), gripping, and suspenseful even though the ending is well-known. Rideout blends history with fiction well, but there are some sections that are not seamless. Rideout contrasts the freezing, high air-pressure, brain-exploding, life-threatening chapters up the mountain with (what she hopes are) the equally gripping emotions of his wife, Ruth Mallory, who waits at home, hoping every day for news. Ruth’s sections are, at times, compelling and heart-breaking, but they do not have the weight to balance the howling, other-worldly scenes on the mountain. They become over-written and repetitive and sometimes seem to only be there so as to keep the balance going. Had they been spread out just a little bit more, they may have been more effective.
The language is poetic and beautiful, but once it a while it becomes overdone. The romantic narrative voice sometimes seems to seep into characters’ dialogue, making their conversations feel contrived. And there is enough imagery of the mountain itself that the “navigate her skin beneath the folds of her skirt” being described as they discuss the upcoming trip up the mountain while making love on top of sheets from an atlas adds up to a little bit too much. However, those moments are few amongst many passages that are lovely and lyrical.
For the most part, the characters are complex, compelling individuals. George and Ruth are both shown to have many layers as we gradually get to know them and empathize with their plights. The research done for the novel is extensive and very evident; the letters between the real George and Ruth Mallory are particularly interesting, the way their own words of love for one another find their way into the story. Sandy Irvine, the young hopeful who makes the final attempt with George is one of the most exciting in the novel. It is unfortunate, however, that the other men on the expedition are more-or-less given one main trait and not really explored psychologically.
My top three favorite things about this novel!
1) The unbearable hope that Rideout manages to capture in every one of George’s scenes. It was so strong that it was catching; I would even find myself wondering at times if the novel would turn out differently than the history–because it’s part fiction, right?! That’s a mark of a good story-teller.
2) The ending. To maintain interest and suspense in a story of which the ending is a well known historical fact, especially when it’s the ending of a main character’s life, would prove very difficult. The details of both George’s final scene and Ruth’s final scene are some of the best-crafted scenes in the novel. You’ll have to read for yourself to find out what I mean.
3) The title! Above All Things so succinctly captures the main conflict in the novel. Love, family, pride, fame, the mountain itself. What, for George, is truly above all else?