"The Paris Wife meets Into Thin Air in this breathtaking debut novel of obsession and divided loyalties, which brilliantly weaves together the harrowing story of George Mallory's ill-fated 1924 attempt to be the first man to conquer Mount Everest, with that of a single day in the life of his wife as she waits at home in England for news of his return. A captivating blend of historical fact and imaginative fiction, Above All Things moves seamlessly back and forth between the epic story of Mallory's legendary final expedition and a heartbreaking account of a day in the life of Ruth Mallory. Through George's perspective, and that of the newest member of the climbing team, Sandy Irvine, we get an astonishing picture of the terrible risks taken by the men on the treacherous terrain of the Himalaya. But it is through Ruth's eyes that a complex portrait of a marriage emerges, one forged on the eve of the First World War, shadowed by its losses, and haunted by the ever-present possibility that George might not come home."
The main reason I picked this up was because it was one of the winter "Penguin Selects". In other words, their marketing ploy worked, and when I couldn't get a review copy, I bought a copy of Above All Things. And it was very good.
One thing I really liked was the fact that George's narration and Ruth's narration are told very differently. George narrates in a somewhat impersonal third-tone past tense, whereas Ruth's story is told in first person, present tense. This makes the reader identify a lot more with Ruth; one feels that they're actually there with her, experiencing what she's experiencing. Ruth is of course the character that we sympathize with more; I can see where George's passion for climbing Mt. Everest comes from, but he's really selfish. I could really see through the narration how much he cared about climbing Everest, how that really was the most important part of his life, no matter how much he loved Ruth. You can also see what he's doing to Ruth; how she can't function at all while he's away, how she just sits there worrying, wasting away.
I loved the historical details in the book; as some say, details sell the story, and this story is sold because of the details. It also had great characters, although at times they were a little flat. The writing was wonderful, though. It wasn't quite as good as Mary Coin (another Penguin Select), but I did really enjoy it. Some parts did drag a little in the middle, a fate that often befalls many books.
One thing that was really confusing in Above All Things was that often the characters would have flashbacks, and they weren't really clear. I would be confused about what was happening in the present and what was being recollected. George would flash back to his trip to New York, Ruth to when they first met, and vice versa. Flashbacks are an easy but effective way to communicate back-stories to the reader, but they could have been written a lot more clearly. However, without the flashbacks, the novel would have felt much flatter and less developed.
The cover of Above All Things was also really hideous, and the UK edition wasn't much better. I'm not even quite sure what it's supposed to be, although looking back I can kind of see that the woman is both a woman (presumably Ruth) and the mountain. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing, but it is rather clever.
Above All Things was an excellent work of historical fiction, much better than The Paris Wife. I would highly recommend it. It was compelling, and definitely worth reading, although I don't love it.
Read Above All Things:
- if you like historical fiction
- if you are interested in Mt. Everest