Simon Mawer

"The Fall"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 20, 2003)

"Wrong and right are judged by one thing only: the outcome."

Such a pragmatic thought would be amoral in most contexts, but this is by no means an ordinary context. Rob Dewar and his climbing partner, Jamie Matthewson, are clinging by their fingertips to the North Face of the Eiger, one of the most difficult and dangerous of all mountaineering challenges, as this thought takes shape. The two men have already passed relics from previous climbs, which attest to "distant and nameless disaster[s]"--an old boot, an abandoned glove, an ancient canvas rucksack--and they realize that they are on a "haunted mountainside...surrounded by ghosts and tripping over their possessions." Read excerptThe weather is bad, and things are about to get much worse, as stones, loosened by a thaw, rain down, and clouds descend to obscure their planned pathways up the Face.

Simon Mawer, a former mountaineer himself, draws on all his personal experience, recreating not only the drama of this "sport" but also the personal psyches of the climbers, those inner forces which impel climbers to face "Time and Death...the great parameters of the Eigerwand." Vibrant sensual descriptions of the mountains, the acts of nature which make the mountains so treacherous, and the agony of the climbing experience itself become so real that many readers will feel the "chicken skin" which accompanies vivid writing and turns fiction into a vicarious, personal experience.

As exciting as the mountaineering passages are--and there are many of them throughout the novel--this is not primarily an adventure story. Mawer has always been a very thoughtful and even "moral" writer, raising questions about man's responsibility toward other men, the nature of truth, the importance of honesty, and the complications of love in all its manifestations and betrayals. His earlier novel, The Gospel of Judas, for example, starts out as a fairly straightforward story about a priest's attempt to ascertain the authenticity of an ancient scroll about the death of Jesus, purportedly the Gospel of Judas. The novel evolves, however, into a much more complex examination of the heart, mind, and family history of this priest, who knows that if he authenticates the scroll that it will undermine two thousand years of church teachings.

The Fall, too, with its title connoting the fall of Adam and Eve, deals with huge, complex questions of love and loss, life and death, and truth and responsibility. The story, which seems so straightforward and plot-driven on the surface, becomes far more intricate, as the reader is guided back and forth in time to share the lives of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson as young teenagers, the lives and interactions of their mothers during World War II, the life and loves of famed mountaineer Guy Matthewson (Jamie's father), and the lives of Rob and Jamie and their lovers when they are in their twenties.

When the novel opens, thirty years have passed since Jamie and Rob climbed the Eigerwand together, and Rob has just heard of the 54-year-old Jamie's death in a fall while climbing in Wales. The two have had little or no contact with each other during this time, and their estrangement is as much of a mystery as the circumstances of Jamie's death. What happened between these two former best friends? Was Jamie's fall really suicide? Returning to Wales for the funeral, Rob remarks, "At some time or other, you must confront your past...We are our past. There is nothing else, and none of it can be undone."

As the past unfolds in flashbacks from several points of view over two generations, the reader soon discovers the many interrelationships among the characters--love affairs, seductions, pregnancies both planned and unplanned, and even sexual abuse. Inspiring much of the action, Rob's mother Diana, Jamie's mother Caroline, Rob's wife Eve, and Jamie's wife Ruth both pursue and are pursued by their lovers, and some of the most sensational events in the novel take place not on the mountainside but in the bedroom. These scenes often combine the imagery of sex with that of climbing or falling, and contrast the subjective reality of love and life with the objective reality posed by danger in the mountains, especially with its death and loss.

Behind all the surface love affairs, of course, is the very real specter of Guy Matthewson, Jamie's father, a man whose life has influenced, by his absence, virtually every other character in the novel. While climbing, Rob remarks, "It was almost as though we were on a pilgrimage and were searching for revelation." But climbing is not necessarily a positive tribute to Guy Matthewson. Mawer also explores the idea of climbing as a death wish and as "a substitute for feeling," with the cold of the mountain being a different form of Hell from the fires of passion.

Heaven and hell, sin and redemption, love and loss, honesty and betrayal, and ultimately life and death are all combined here in this vibrant novel, which provides fast action and crises both on the mountain and in the personal lives of the characters over two generations and fifty years. Though there are some clichés, along with some awkwardness in the plotting (especially in the predictable ending), this is a strong, dramatic novel, which should appeal to many more readers than any of Mawer's previous novels, and it is easy to imagine this novel becoming a film. Whether film can do justice to the complexity of the themes is another question entirely.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 35 reviews

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About the Author:

Simon MawerSimon Mawer was born in England in 1948. He earned a graduate degree in zoology from Oxford University. His first novel, Chimera, was sold when he was forty; it won the McKitterick prize for a first novel. He lives and teaches biology in Rome. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014