Woof. Where to start with this? Well perhaps with a word of thanks to a good friend who told me several times that this is her favourite novel – how she read it in one sitting. It is really very good.
First published in 1989 – this newer edition has a foreword from the estimable Robert McFarlane, who is clearly a huge fan – “surely the best novel about rock-climbing ever written – though such a description drastically limits its achievement” – it is a novel that had passed me by and probably would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a combination of the friendly enthusiasm and the enjoyment I got from reading his most recent novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which I read last year after it had rightly won awards.
I should say from the off that you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy this – it is about people, friendships, how they grow and develop and interact, in some cases grow apart and in one or two cases, how they die and how those left behind cope with that: human life basically. There are some bits and pieces of climbing speak or knowledge that those much better qualified than me might have an opinion on – not being in that camp, they are lost on me.
Told through the voice / eyes of Mike, who coming out of a messy divorce, makes the acquaintance of this bunch of irregulars who more or less give all of their spare time to their obsession; travelling about the country – Peak District, Wales, and a few spots in Yorkshire – pushing themselves to makes climbs they thought were beyond them, swapping stories of how they got lost / got stuck, or how someone else did, as they sit huddled over steaming mugs of tea or pints of ‘traditional’ bitter in the back rooms of pubs. Individuals move in and out of the orbit of the story, some drop out for months and are only heard of again third-hand. Some of them find holding down jobs and / or relationships quite a challenge, when their foremost consideration is how to get to the next climb early the following morning – something that often involves a long overnight drive or sleeping in the van in a lay-by. There is an almost unspoken but understood need for escape, or perhaps risk, deep within each of these people.
But there is no epiphany, no revelation for Mike – or any of us – towards the end of the novel he reflects that he knows no more now than he did a year ago. There is an undefinable core to the novel – something about bleakness, distance, an existential aloneness that isn’t necessarily uncomfortable but is unavoidable.
Harrison’s writing is lucid, his characters speak in a natural way. It is humane, accessible and thoroughly absorbing.