Published by Little Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
In Simon Mawer's The Fall, there are many falls, both literal and figurative. The novel opens with famed British mountaineer Jamie Matthewson falling to his death off a rock face in Wales. At age 52, Jamie's career as a climber was on the downside and his attempt to climb a route for which he was no longer qualified raises a host of questions, including whether the fall was deliberate. Upon hearing of his death, Jamie's boyhood friend and climbing partner, Rob Dewar, leaves his family behind in London and goes to Wales to console Jamie's widow, Ruth, and find some answers.
The rest of the novel moves back and forth in time, with Rob narrating the events of the present and his recollection of his past with Jamie and Ruth, and an omniscient narrator telling the events in the life of Rob's mother, Diana, and Jamie's mother, Meg (or Caroline as she's decided to be called in her later years). The Fall is the story of the twisted entanglements of these two families. Diana and Meg had been friends in school and in London during The Blitz in 1940. Years later they met again and their boys, Jamie and Rob, were introduced and became fast friends. Jamie's father, Guy Matthewson, had been a famous climber who had died on a Himalayan mountain. Jamie possessed the same talent for climbing as his dad and was soon dragging Rob up and down rock faces and cliffs all over Wales and Scotland.
Rob tells of his history with Jamie, which often suffered years of absence between the two, only to end with Jamie suddenly arriving and taking Rob with him on his next adventure. While Jamie was a great climber, Rob was merely good, and he participated in climbs that he would never had attempted without Jamie's presence and prodding. One thing both of them shared was a life without a father. Jamie's father was always away climbing and then froze to death on a mountainside. Rob's father divorced Diana and remarried when he was a small boy, and never spent any time with him after that. In a way, the cliffs and mountains are obvious paternal substitutes for Jamie and Rob, providing the challenges and permanence necessary for them to grow into men, both physically and mentally. Together they met Ruth, took her with them on some of the climbing trips, and then both loved her, once together.
When some of Jamie's father's climbing logs are found, and then some of his personal effects are returned when his frozen body is found in the Himalayas, Rob and Jamie are able to piece together some of the past. Rob finds a log entry that suggests that his mother once climbed with Guy Matthewson. When he confronts his mother with this revelation, he realizes that she hadn't just climbed with him, but she had once loved Guy, and could tell just by the pain in her voice just how much she did. Just stepping into manhood and learning about love himself, Jamie says, "And yet here was an adult who seemed scarred by love, almost literally so, the tissue still growing over the wound and giving her the stiff, expressionless face of a burn victim."
As the story of Jamie, Rob, and Ruth unfolds, as well as the story of Diana, Meg, and Guy in the 1940s, the ripple of lies, betrayals, and untold truths become waves that crash through all their relationships. To Simon Mawer's credit, what could be an overabundance of these for this small set of people makes sense within his story line and realistic portrayal of each of the characters involved. Like any web of secrets, one truthful admission would have unrolled a cavalcade of pain throughout many lives, so over the years, each person kept secret the knowledge they had. As each bit of information is revealed within the novel, not only does more of the characters' lives become clear, so does the fact that there are obviously more secrets to follow.
The climbing scenes in the novel are splendidly done, evoking the sense of fear, danger, elation, and companionship involved. Once an avid climber himself, Simon Mawer eases us into the jargon and details of climbing and then vividly places us on the cliff face with Jamie and Rob. We come to understand what it takes for them to succeed and how easily, and fatally, they could fail. It's a profession that drives its adherents to tougher and higher climbs, pumping up the adrenaline and danger, until a fall takes its toll. Reading the novel, it's apparent that either Jamie or Rob, or both, will suffer a fall.
All the components seem to be in place for a story full of drama and secrets combined with the thrills and dangers of mountain climbing, one that will grab you from page one and leave you breathless at the last page. Yet, this novel doesn't succeed that well. It's not the gripping read it wants to be, although at times, Simon Mawer hits the nail on the head. The story of Diana as an ambulance nurse in London while German bombs fall, with its realistic portrayal of danger and soldiering on despite the fear, are done as well as the climbing scenes.
This novel succeeds or fails on the shoulders of its protagonist, Rob Dewar, and this is where the shortcomings of The Fall are the most glaring. Rob is not a totally sympathetic character, although that's not necessary for a great novel. What Rob lacks is a drive of his own. He never seems in control of his own life, he's either being lead by Jamie, or Caroline, or Ruth, or his wife, Eve. It's as if he's forced to be an observer in everybody else's life, but we're never told exactly what it is that Rob wants. Too often he seems to want what others think he should have. Since Rob lacks the drive for anything important in his own life, we're left to wonder about the mysteries of his past to satisfy our own curiosities, not to assuage any pain that Rob might feel.
The most sympathetic and touching character is the young Diana, but her chapters spent in love with Guy or trying to survive in London during The Blitz pass much too quickly. The older Diana is a hardened shell of her former self and fades out of the novel and Rob's life as he gets older.
Simon Mawer has given us a good novel, just not a great one. It can be electrifying and dizzying at one point and then detached and mired in its characters' own lack of inertia the next. A more even novel would have been received better, but The Fall is still an enjoyable read that will leave you guessing the truth until the very end.
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