BOOK REVIEW (KIND OF) - BEYOND THE MOUNTAIN
Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes
I have always been a huge fan of fiction. I think because it has the power to tell a truth so personal that the greatest writers end up offering the reader a perfect mirror of reality.
Having said this, for all my love of mountains and the wilderness, I have actually read relatively few “mountain novels”. So, on starting The Armchair Mountaineer, I made a pledge to myself to take a break from regular fiction and ensure I gave enough time to this neglected area of my wider interest. There are actually many highly recommended works of fiction in this arena.
Yes, ok, I’ll stop wittering and get to the point.
Not so long ago I wrote about 5 of the best mountain novels that have climbing as the central theme. I deliberately picked different styles to give a nicely rounded view of what is available for the varying literary palates. I am glad to say I can now add a new read to this list as I have just finished Beyond the Mountain by Elizabeth Arthur.
Read more climbing novel reviews here.
It is a work you may never had heard of. You may indeed have never heard of the author. I hadn’t until I came across this title (and I was a bookseller for about 10 years). I don’t know if Arthur has any books in print at the moment or indeed if she has gained a loyal following through her other work. I apologise for this ignorance but I think it is fair to say she is not amongst the most famous of US 20th century writers.
I don’t know where to start on this one, without giving away the story. In fact, I would kind of like to give away the story, because its both challenging and intelligent.
It is a violent and ambitious story of desire, guilt and love. As is so often the case one human’s relationship with mountains, and particularly climbing, are a perfect metaphor for the almost inexplicable and all too powerful pull of love. Perhaps it is the huge risks that human magnetism and the draw of high altitude mountaineering have in common that guides the writer to set these different journeys in parallel and speak so honestly to the audience.
A broken heart? Death.
How often would the distraught lover swap the former for the latter? In love and climbing one puts something on the line. Exposes the flesh. Opens up the human to an elemental vulnerability in a way that a more sedate pastime cannot do. From Colorado to Annapurna, well beyond the mountain, destruction is a possibility.
These are words that describe the physical and emotional intensity of a relationship with a fellow human or the seduction of a wild and inhospitable mountain. They describe why one might go on when one shouldn’t; when an ideal, a vision-imagined, or simply a desperate desire to think that success and redemption are around the corner lead the human on. The top is there. Things will be different. Suffocating, oxygen-sapping pain is set aside.
Attraction binds and blinds.
But not simply the basest of physical attractions. Something beyond this. Something utterly inexplicable that encompasses the physical, something that may damage, something that exalts. Something akin to a bloody-mindedness of the soul. Inexplicably it leads. It is torn, it even questions, but it never gives up. Destruction is a possibility.
I have said absolutely nothing about this novel and yet I have said a lot. I hope this makes you want to read it and I would really encourage you do so. It made me think and it made me write this post.
I will just add this… the main character is a woman, which is refreshing.