The first four pages of this novel arouse the highest expectations. Some walkers in the Snowdon area stare up at the boilerplate slabs of a crag up which, far above them, a figure is climbing. He is neither carrying the special equipment nor wearing the protective gear usual for a project so dangerous, and he is, as one of the observers remarks in shocked amazement, ‘bloody soloing’. Then all at once he plunges to his death.
Everyone expects the body that lands on the grass below the crag to be that of some reckless tyro. In fact, it is that of a man eventually identified as one of the most famous of English mountaineers. At 53, he is long past the age when a climb so exacting should be attempted. The daring and athleticism with which he has made his way up the crag are matched by the daring and athleticism of the style in which Simon Mawer evokes the whole scene. Subsequently, Mawer’s novel does not plummet downwards in the same fatal way. But there are many times when the authorial hand fumbles for a screw or all but fails to grasp a piton, and one senses imminent disaster.
The dead mountaineer, Jamie Matthewson, is the son of a hardly less famous mountaineer, Guy, who perished on Kangchengjunga while Jamie was still a small child. During his boyhood in the Welsh Hills, Jamie’s closest friend, also fatherless, is Rob Dewar, who shares his passion for climbing. In the past, the boys’ mothers were rivals for Guy’s love, with Jamie’s mother eventually marrying him. Jamie and Roy in turn become rivals for Ruth, a painter with an insatiable appetite for adventure and sex. It is only after Jamie’s death that two secrets – one about his true feelings for Rob, the other about the relationship between his father and Rob’s mother – are finally revealed. But Mawer has left a trail clear enough to arouse the reader’s suspicions before that.
Mawer has some of Kipling’s miraculous gift for describing raw, brutal physical activity. Having himself been a climber, he is at his best when his characters are either isolated on the face of some mountain or else doing something at once as exhilarating and as taxing as swimming in an icy lake. It is when he deals with the emotional entanglements of his two generations that he intermittently falters. An example is an early scene, when the two adolescent boys trespass into a disused quarry and a scruffy, hectoring guard apprehends them. Jamie wins their release by agreeing to perform fellatio on the man. This makes for a dramatic incident but one that, for me at least, is extremely hard to credit. There are other, similar psychological miscalculations, particularly in the sexual relationship between the teenage Rob and Jamie’s mother, and in Rob’s mother’s abrupt wartime decision to end her relationship with Guy, even though she is pregnant by him.
However, the superb descriptions of the beauties of mountains and the perils of climbing them amply redeem these deficiencies. There is a wonderful section in which, climbing with Jamie on the north face of the Eiger, Rob breaks a leg and suffers frostbite. Should Jamie stay with him as night falls or descend alone to summon help? When he opts for the second of these courses, Rob sees it as a betrayal, and their friendship in effect ends, along with Rob’s climbing.
Constantly fluctuating between the sublime and the mediocre, this is a far from perfect novel. But it is certainly well worth reading.