I’ll be honest. I was nervous about this one. I did indeed make the mistake of judging the book by its cover. The cover is terrible. It looked far too much like romantic fiction for old ladies for my liking.
Luckily the contents of the book are far better than the cover. Above All Things is based on the tale of George Mallory and Henry Irvine’s attempt to scale Everest in the 1920s. The focus of the book deals with Mallory’s relationship with his wife Ruth, which is the reason for the soppy cover. What is it like to wait at home for someone to return from a dangerous mission you don’t understand or approve of? To be married to someone so driven? The story flits between the climbers’s entire expedition and just one day of Ruth’s where she has a dinner party and needs to prepare for it. (I couldn’t help but think of Mrs Dalloway here, and I wonder if this was intentional, given that that Mallory was linked to the Bloomsbury group.)
I’ve never understood the allure of mountain climbing. Mallory was the chap who coined the irritating phrase “Because it’s there.” It’s a testimony to Rideout’s writing and storytelling that I forgot all about my general dislike of all things mountainous. The climbers’ parts of the story are much better than Ruth’s part. George is a selfish, ambitious, arrogant and sometimes reckless man. (Though I imagine you’d need all those qualities to climb mountains.) Yet, for all that, I wanted him to succeed.
It didn’t matter, therefore, that I knew from history that this would have a sad ending. As I got closer to the end and therefore the inevitable a sense of dread took over. And poor Ruth who, earlier in the book, I found rather whiny, having to tell the children their father wasn’t coming back. (By the time of the dinner party her part has much improved. There was only so much I could bear reading about her moping.)
Doing some random Googling after I’d finished the book, I found this terribly sad quote from Mallory’s son John, who was three when his father died: To him, George Mallory’s failure to return home provided all the answers he needed.‘To me,’ he said, ‘the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again’.
Essentially, this is a good book let down by a poor cover.
Above All Things is published by Penguin and is the Britmums Book Club read for April.