In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irving were briefly glimpsed tantalisingly close to Everest’s unconquered summit. They disappeared into the mountain’s ‘smoke’ and were never seen alive again. The announcement of their presumed deaths in the London papers was accompanied by the post script notice of the deaths of two other climbers on the mountain – Lord Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer, who were reported to have been swept away in an avalanche. Lord Percy’s mother is tormented by thoughts of her son lost on Everest, surviving against all odds, trapped perhaps in some unlikely cave. He must be put to rest and so she agrees to support an unofficial expedition to Everest in 1925. Its main aim will not be to plant a flag on Everest, although this may be a consequence of the mission, but to find the remains of Percy and Meyer and discover what really happened to these two men who shadowed the heels of Mallory and Irving but yet never became part of their ascent.
Seamlessly mingling fact and fiction, The Abominable by Dan Simmons presents the Everest expedition of Richard Deacon, aka The Deacon, once the friend and climbing partner of Mallory, and our narrator Jake Perry, a young rock climber, and their small, unusual and characterful team of European climbers and Sherpas. But there is so much more to this spectacular and luxuriously chunky novel than those bare bones. Over the course of almost 700 pages, Dan Simmons convinces you that you are back in the 1920s, this heyday of mountain exploration when new techniques and new technologies were matched only by the sheer bravery of the climbers, alongside a small group of truly remarkable people that you learn to know inside out, bit by bit.
Not all of the novel takes place on Everest. A sizeable part of it is spent in preparation, mostly on the sheer rock faces of Wales but also with trips to the continent. There are also fascinating sections set in the country homes of aristocratic England. The pace is leisurely, detailed and careful and utterly absorbing. While some of the climbing descriptions were possibly too involved and specific for me to follow, I was captivated by Simmons’ meticulous reconstruction of the world of climbing in the 1920s. It is extremely atmospheric and evocative and, above all else, totally convincing. But all that fades away when we reach the slopes, steps, crevasses and ledges of Everest itself. From then on, the reader is completely consumed by the depiction of the hostile, lethal and literally breathtakingly beautiful roof of the world. Simmons takes his time, giving us the ins and outs of how to approach a mountain such as this where a climber has instigated his own slow death at altitude. The beliefs and efforts of the Sherpas are given emphasis and what we witness is almost as unfamiliar as survival on the mountain is extreme.
I’m intentionally giving very little away here. There is much more to The Abominable than the ascent, torturous and thrilling as it is, or the painfully human search for Percy’s remains. There is a mystery here, more than one, and its reach extends into the heart of a darkening Europe. The horrific events of World War One overshadow the actions and motivations of more than one climber – these are scarred men – and the threat of a fascist Germany is beginning to stir. It would seem there is no escape. You can never outrun yourself, or history, even if you climb to the Earth’s sky.
The Abominable is a masterly work of historical fiction but it is also a mystery, a thriller and a horror story. Our characters’ hold on life is perilous and fragile at best. The reader is pulled along with them, through the harshest of environments, in which no one should rightly survive, and into the darkness of their fears on this monstrous mountain. Our involvement is intensified by the present tense narration of Jake Perry who has written his story many years later to our author, Dan Simmons. Jake frequently interjects from the past and from the present. Tenses change, as do the structure or appearance of chapters. By the last third of the novel, there was no rest for me as I was compelled to read it, not wanting to put the book down for a moment, as I finally discovered the novel’s meaning.
I was so sorry to finish The Abominable. It was an emotional reading experience. While I can understand that for some the meticulous and lengthy descriptions might be excessive, for me they were perfect. I have rarely felt so absorbed into a work of fiction, so steeped in its mood. I could feel the chill and I shared the fear as well as the exhilaration of a particularly perilous section of climb achieved. I didn’t find the pace slow. I found it to be luxurious and rich. Surely there can be few literary portraits of Everest (or its courageous, obsessed, astonishing climbers) as vivid and riveting as this. A completely satisfying mix of history, realism and fiction.
Dan Simmons is our companion through The Abominable. It is to him that Jake Perry tells his story. Reference is made to an earlier novel, The Terror, another wintry, fearsome tale of extreme hardship and endurance. As soon as I finished The Abominable, I ordered The Terror. I wanted more instantly. Without doubt, The Abominable is one of my most highly recommended reads of 2013 and one that I’ll remember for a long, long time.