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August 7, 2012

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

Ever since I started thinking about these things, the question has occurred to me: what is this literary reflex triggered by books so far away from here and now that convince us that said books are great? Even though some of our best writers write books with titles like Small Ceremonies and or depict parents picking nits from each others’ heads, why are Canadian readers (and awards juries) so swept away by sweeping, by largeness, by grandeur?

And it doesn’t come any bigger than the the Mount Everest in Tanis Rideout’s first novel Above All Things. The second-biggest topic she tackles is the British Empire and its crumbling. There is a mention of Toronto in the novel, guaranteed to get us all a little giddy, but then George Mallory really doesn’t think much of the place: “Cold. Even after Everest. And grey and dark. The cold there pinned up down.”

That Rideout’s book and its inevitable acclaim will serve as fodder for brand new versions of the “Is Canadian writing un-Canadian?” argument, however, should not undermine the fact that the novel is actually quite extraordinary, really wonderful. Smartly designed with an arts and crafts font, a cover image meant for mass-appeal, marketed as “The Paris Wife meets Into Thin Air“, but yet there is a singularity to this novel. As I read it, I kept thinking, “If every book was as good as this, maybe publishing wouldn’t be in trouble after all.” It’s an ambitious task she takes on, what with empires and mountains, but Tanis Rideout pulls it off, takes the summit. I’ve been disappointed by so many novels lately whose mechanics have been evident beneath their surfaces, whose writer’s stretching has been all too clear, but Above All Things is so perfectly formed, not only a novel to get lost in but one whose literary-ness will surely take you higher.

Above All Things comprises the parallel stories of Ruth Mallory, and her husband George, the latter the mountaineer whose infamous ill-fated Everest attempt makes the novel’s outcome clear from the start. There are several links to Virginia Woolf– the novel’s opening chapter is titled “The Voyage Out”; Woolf herself appears as a character in the book, a contemporary of the Mallorys, well-known thanks to George’s Bloomsbury connections; and Ruth’s own story is told in a Mrs. Dalloway fashion, the hours in the day of a woman with a party to plan, who will buy the flowers herself.

Though it’s not a party she wants to have, necessarily, but she’s having it anyway to put a brave face to the world, to attempt to distract herself from her husband’s absence. It’s his second Everest attempt, though he’d promised he wouldn’t try it again. There is also the time he spent on tour in America, and the years he spent away at war, and so Ruth is accustomed to his absence, but it doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t make her less resentful either, or less angry, as she meditates on all he’s chosen over her again and again, what it is to come second to a mountain.

Meanwhile George’s own story is told in alternating chapters, taking place over months where Ruth’s is in a single day. His pace furious, the stakes high, and he’s able to avoid meditation for the most part. Rideout goes into considerable detail about the practicalities of an Everest climb in 1924, the minutiae necessary to complete the task, and we begin to see that the boundaries between domestic and wild, between men’s stories and women’s, are not as solid as they seem. George’s single-mindedness means another point of view is required to complete his sections, and Rideout uses that of Sandy Irvine, a young climber only too eager to follow in George Mallory’s footsteps.

Above All Things is a love story, and also a puzzle– is it Mallory’s love for Everest or the love of his marriage that the title refers to? What is a love story whose trajectory is two people moving further and further apart? Rideout writes of her inspiration from the real life letters that George and Ruth wrote to one another, and of how she used the letters as a jumping-off point to change these historical characters to fictional people. She subverts notions of marriage to show it as a many-textured thing, rife with compromise and betrayals upon which love itself doesn’t necessarily hinge. The story also has contemporary resonance in our time in which men are still being urged towards a “duty” that involves dying for their country, in which we’re still learning how to be in a world whose corners are nearly all explored.

So what does it mean then, that I’ve been swept away again? Impressed that this Canadian writer has imagined her way into these historical lives, imagined her way to the top of the world? I’m getting savvier though, and I can tell you this: sometimes the same old arguments have nothing to do with the matter, and I also know a really good book when I see it.

2 thoughts on “Above All Things by Tanis Rideout”

  1. What a fantastic review! I love how you described it as a love story with a puzzle element.

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