A Deathful Ridge
(Mosaic, 138 pages, $16.95 paper) by the Nova Scotia poet J. A. Wainwright is a small gem of a novel reminiscent of Timothy Findley's The Wars
, to which it owes an obvious debt in both theme and form. Wainwright reconstructs the story of George Mallory, the greatest climber of his generation, who in 1924 vanished with his fellow climber Andrew Irvine while attempting to reach the top of Mount Everest (a feat which was not accomplished until 1953 when the team of Hillary and Tenzing made their successful ascent). Wainwright has taken the historic record-the known facts of Mallory's story-and has imagined what might have happened: the truths hidden behind the facts.
In Wainwright's version, Mallory, holding Irvine's axe, is found by one of the other climbers. He is also holding a bloody rock and claims he has killed Irvine. The remaining three members of the team agree that Mallory's "Galahad" status must be preserved at all cost. There's something at stake far greater than the life of one man: a revered reputation. He is a bona fide British hero, and so he shall remain, "the image of a man crucial to the preservation of certain English ideals that had been terribly damaged but obviously not completely destroyed by the War." The myth of the daring climber vanishing gloriously into the high mountain mist is preferable to-and more politically expedient than-the ignominious fall from grace that a murder charge would elicit. And so a conspiracy is set in motion. Mallory is returned secretly to Britain, where he lives out the rest of his life-twenty-two years-in silence. Even his wife, Ruth, is not told that her husband is still alive.
The narrator is inspired by a dream of Mallory to embark on a biographical quest: he wants to learn the truth about the climber, the man, the hero. The novel is, in effect, a map of this journey. He tracks down archival material, meets the 104-year-old Nye Davies, who tells him about the conspiracy and opens up unmined territory. He pores over Mallory's journals and letters, interviews the actress who played Ruth in a movie about Mallory, assesses the testimonials of friends, tries to match the private with the public life.
He admits, "There's a kind of collective need to pursue myth and to reshape or rewrite it in one form or another." He explores the nature of the biographical quest in all its complexity-illusive, elusive, allusive-and comes to acknowledge that there is no one true story of a life. A person's existence cannot be summarized, neatly packaged for consumption.