Rosie Thomas’s Himalaya-set romantic novel, White, was published four years after the deadliest mountaineering day in Mount Everest history, when eight climbers perished in a storm on the summit. Although White relates a fictional expedition that culminates in a smaller-scale tragedy it proved impossible for me to ignore historical precedents and refrain from comparisons. Technically, Rosie Thomas possesses more than sufficient credentials to rise to the challenge: this two-time winner of the Romantic Novelists’ Award is herself a climber who has made a trek to Everest Base Camp. The intensity and been-there-feel of the Himalayan sections are easily the most gripping parts of White, ensuring armchair travellers are rewarded. But getting there and on to the ending is like reading a different book altogether: one that requires slogging through tensionless filler since the buildup and flat but outdrawn aftermath are encumbered by flab and weak focus.
Unwilling to settle for the routine if luxurious existence family and friends envision for her, Canadian doctor Finch Buchanan rejects a proposal from her boyfriend and applies for the position of medical officer on a three-month Everest expedition. Unlike the other participants it is not primarily the summit that draws her although she, too, is an avid climber, but someone from her past whom she cannot forget. A fighter who chooses her own path and doesn’t believe in the concept of “can’t”, Finch has spent her life trying to prove something even she doesn’t fully understand. But when early mishaps on the Everest ascent drive home the enormity of her medical responsibilities, personal doubts about her abilities begin to gnaw at her, and fear begins to cloud joy.
The son of a famous climber, information architect Sam McGrath from Seattle, USA, has literally been running from the shadow of his now handicapped father’s disappointment in him. He feels trapped in a life that seems narrower each day until a chance encounter at an airport blows fresh excitement into him. On impulse, he jumps at the chance to fill in for a sickened expedition member. Everest becomes the test he never knew he needed to take – one that he realises too late he may not survive.
Expedition guide, Welshman Alyn “Al” Hood has seen friends die on the mountains. Each time he embarks on a dangerous climb his daughter fears the next phone call will announce his death. A loner by nature, Al lives for the mountains, where passionate purpose peels everything inessential away until only purity remains. Only there does he feel alive and at peace. The problem is, he has not been able to figure out how to make love fit into this lifestyle. If he lets it, however, this expedition could prove the turning point.
Spirits soar high as the international expedition converges in Nepal. But when the personal demons, ambitions, and obsessions of the various team members begin to rise to the fore, Everest exacts a heavy price. No one will come down from the mountain unscathed.
Had I not been stuck without anything besides safety brochures and duty-free lists to read on a ten-hour transatlantic flight I might have given up on White at the 100-page mark. That would have been a pity, because once the story at long last arrives in Nepal I became engrossed in what suddenly seemed a totally different, fresher book. Yet once the action left the Himalaya my interest again waned so much it took me over a week to finish the remaining 137 pages. While White is about personal journeys as much as it is about the expedition that brings the three principal characters together, I am afraid that the novel’s structure gave the whole a very choppy, disjointed feel. The story segments felt poorly cobbled together, as if one book had been spliced together with a separate book about the same characters but with a different atmosphere, style, and execution.
The rambling plotline divides the story into three distinct parts. A central, taut and edgy section fit for adrenaline junkies is bookended by a sprawling introductory account that details the backstories of the principal characters up to the Everest expedition, and a plodding conclusion which follows the slow recovery and rebuilding of lives in the aftermath of the climb. It is a three-part act that mirrors the emotional trajectory of the characters: the restlessness they feel as they go about mundane, unsatisfactory lives built around the expectations of others; followed by the exhilaration and total absorption of pushing themselves to the limit in pursuit of an intensely personal, extraordinary goal; and finally the lethargy and confusion after coming down from a high and dealing with trying to adapt to a former lives that no longer fit their changed selves.
A major problem with this structure is that the novel’s climaxing events occur nearly a full third before the end. The trick then becomes to sustain reader investment as the action falls, levels out, and slows. In my case, the numbness of the shocked and grieving characters rubbed off on me, turning empathy into impatience since, after the drama and urgency of the Himalayan chapters, the story separates the principal characters for most of the remaining pages and resumes a pedestrian blandness lacking in both content and tension. In my boredom I idly reflected that bringing the story to a conclusion a hundred pages earlier would have made for a considerably punchier story. It would have changed the genre, though: it is in this last segment that White evolves from a bittersweet triangle drama into romantic genre fiction.
White introduces a very large cast of characters, sometimes to the point of clutter. The viewpoint switches between major and minor characters frequently seemed impulsive and arbitrary, disconnecting me emotionally from a protagonist’s experiences and slackening the emotion and suspense of dramatic moments. Counterbalancing this, the author displays a definite knack for creating complex characterisations that have bite and individuality. The principal and many secondary characters feel honest and real, imbued with dynamism and passion which can make them appear selfish or obsessed in their dealings with others but on the other hand helps crystallise their personalities in intriguing ways. There is no attempt to cajole the reader’s sympathy by early proofs of loveability or worthiness; deeper layers are are gradually revealed, particularly in the case of the seemingly stand-offish, self-sufficient Finch. I also enjoyed the development of the bonding of people who live through something extraordinary together. Less convincingly drawn are the romantic relationships, where the motivations for why some of the characters become attracted to each other seem muddled. What, for example, drove Finch to remain enamoured of her first love interest throughout the years, beyond the initial feelings of pity and compassion? On a side note, I was distracted by the decision to give all the principal characters a significant other to leave behind as they form new attachments. As a symbol of breaking with the past the device felt unimaginative and heavy-handed, and the circumstances implied a callousness and self-centredness on the part of the characters that the narrative, which advocates an strongly idealistic sympathy for various debate-worthy actions, tends to brush aside.
While the adventure component of White makes up its most dynamic segment, the novel is not a suspense tale but relationship fiction with an emphasis is on the individual journeys of the characters. While their romantic entanglements are the plot catalysts, their gazes tend to turn inward, and the mood this creates is meditative and intensely personal. In the context of setting and locale, however, the introspective narration wastes the numerous international locations by depriving them of personality: wrapped up in themselves or the challenges of the moment, the characters tend to pay scant attention to their larger surroundings. Oregon and Seattle (USA), Vancouver (Canada), Kathmandu (Nepal), Pakistan, Tibet, north Wales, and England become mere names. The Everest chapters saved the day for me by zooming in on the landscape and bringing sharp clarity to visual impressions, even as the nature of the ascent from Base Camp onward inevitably leads to mouse-hole-type focus on the terrain right in front of an exhausted climber’s eyes or feet.
In the scene portraing the summiting of Mount Everest the text is busy with the private preoccupations of the climbers, barely pausing to note the view or even the achievement itself. It is perhaps fair in the context of the situation, but after three hundred pages of build-up, I felt short-changed in almost every way on this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene!
End of spoiler
Yet even where the story is beautifully descriptive the Himalayan setting remains essentially shallow. White will not afford the reader any perspective on Nepal or its people - sherpas are background figures - nor mention the topic of Everest-related adventure tourism issues. While the fictitious expedition is not quite the “all the climbing that money can buy”-type (no one brings an espresso maker), neither does the story even temporarily venture away from escapism to address the commercialisation of Everest. On the positive side, the expedition and the logistics around it feel authentic. Rosie Thomas’s personal familiarity with the gruelling physical exertions and and mental challenges of mountaineering brings an acuity to the climb that filled me with awe for the strength and endurance of a disciplined human body. Nor does specialised terminology or concepts impede understanding as the author does an excellent job of keeping everything clear and understandable within the natural flow of events.
The motivations the various characters of White have for daring the life-threatening odds and scaling the highest mountain on the planet varies, but the general philosophy that emerges from the story seems to hold that obsession is simply an alternative form of sanity, that what is involved is not recklessness or arrogance but courage, and that choosing a life of self-fulfillment is worth even the ultimate cost. Whatever the merits of that view, my take on the actions and decisions of the characters did not dispose me to interpret the pivotal events in quite the noble light the narrative would have the reader do. No doubt this negatively impacted my final assessment of the novel, because it unfortunately made me cynical about the most emotional aspects of the story. Still, the drama does inspire some interesting things to ponder regarding reader participation. Does the reader who wills the characters to ascend to the summit in order to enjoy the vicarious satisfaction of experiencing them conquer their goal become complicit in some way with the foolhardy members of the expedition? There seems to be a lesson in there, for anyone surprised or censorious in hindsight, about how guilt and blame go around and how terribly easily ambition can inspire bad decisions. Furthermore, one of the themes in White deals with the question of what is weakness and what is strength, showing, for example, that sometimes giving up and allowing oneself to be weak can be the ultimate realisation of strength.
In the end, what I liked best about White were the skilled characterisations and layered relationships coupled with a nicely drawn, dramatic setting. This combination may one day cause me to seek out another of Rosie Thomas’s novels, probably Sun At Midnight, set in Antarctica (another place this globetrotting author has visited in person). I have no problem seeing why other readers might find White a passionate, thrilling novel, but while I, too, very much enjoyed some parts, on the whole this was a surprisingly stale reading experience for me.
(Originally published in 2000. My edition: McArthur & Company paperback, 2001, p.143)
“The expedition reached the terminal moraine of the Khumbu glacier at 16,000 feet. The wilderness of rock and grit and ice was crusty with winter snowpack – there would be no glimpses of softening greenery from here on. It was a bitterly hard, monochrome world. On a bleak plateau beside the glacier there were dozens of simple stone cairns. Each one of them was a memorial to a climber who had died on Everest.
The highest settlement along the track was Pemba’s and Mingma’s home village. Just outside it there was a stupa, a little shrine built of rock beside the path, and Finch changed her direction to pass to the left of it according to custom. A row of prayer wheels mounted in a recess in the wall were lazily turning and she had set the first one spinning faster before she saw Sam sitting just beyond the shrine. Deliberately she spun the other wheels and moved on. He fell into step beside her and they walked in silence for a way, looking up to the ring of peaks.
‘I couldn’t think of a prayer that wasn’t to do with not dying up there,’ he said at last. She glanced sharply at him. It was impossible to imagine Ted or Rix or one of the others saying any such thing.
‘I know. I felt the same way with the lama.’
‘You’re scared as well?’
‘Yes. Looking up there, how could anyone not be?’ She had been afraid ever since she had seen the mountain riding in its sea of cloud. The scale of it was so fearsome. ‘Why are you doing this, Sam?’
‘Because you won’t have dinner with me otherwise.’”