Sunday, February 13, 2011

Staff Pick - A Deathful Ridge by J.A. Wainwright

Written two years before Mallory’s body was discovered on Everest, A Deathful Ridge by J.A. Wainwright speculates imaginatively on what might have happened.

According to the facts as we know them, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared on the third British Everest expedition in 1924. They were on the north east slope not far from the summit, but it is not known whether they were ascending or descending. Mallory captured the world’s attention. Known as “Galahad” and admired for his courage and mountaineering skills, Mallory’s reputation endures despite the brevity of his life.

Wainwright offers a different and provocative scenario. In his novel the narrator, a Canadian researcher, inspired by a dream of Mallory, travels to learn about this man and the nature of heroism. He uncovers journals and poetry and interviews the actress who played Mallory’s wife Ruth in the movie, and most importantly, he meets 100+ year old Nye Davies. Davies was party to the conspiracy to conceal the truth about what happened on the mountain that day.

Mallory is found by the other climbers, alive and well, holding an axe, claiming that he had killed Irvine. Horrified that this icon of British heroism might be tarnished, the party conspires to spirit Mallory back to England to live in silence and seclusion. They determine that the world, his wife and his children would be better off thinking he had died on that mountain than knowing the truth. Mallory maintains his silence for decades.

Despite its brevity, this is a complex and literary novel that requires patience and inspires thought. It is less about mountaineering and more about the nature of heroes and the need we have to revere them. Stylistically it reminds me of The Wars by Timothy Findley in which an historian is trying to understand Robert Ross’s life through archival records and interviews. “The year is 1915. Robert Ross, a young Canadian, enlists as an officer. He is not yet twenty as we follow him from his cloistered home in Canada across the Atlantic to and the horrors of the battlefield. He finds himself in a nightmare world of trench warfare, of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses. In this world gone mad, Robert Ross performs a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death.” – dust jacket.

Jeffrey Archer has also written recently about George Mallory in Paths of Glory. He begins with the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999 and offers up an entertaining biographical story. “Some people have dreams that are so magnificent that if they were to achieve them, their place in history would be guaranteed. But what if one man had such a dream…and once he’d fulfilled it, there was no proof that he had achieved his ambition? This is the story of such a man: George Mallory. He once told an American reporter that he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there.” On his third attempt in 1924, at age thirty-seven, he was last seen six hundred feet from the top. His body was found in 1999. And it still remains a mystery whether he ever reached the summit.” – publisher

If your interests lie more towards mountaineering you might prefer Ghosts of Everest: the search for Mallory and Irvine by Jochen Hemmleb. – “Ghosts of Everest: the search for Mallory and Irvine and is a detective story of the first order. It is the story not just of Mallory and Irvine’s last climb, but of the team of climbers and researchers who, together, found the body of perhaps Britain’s greatest mountaineer and uncovered the startling story he had waited so long to reveal.” – dust jacket

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