Beyond the Mountain. Elizabeth Arthur. Harper & Row, New York, 1983. 211 pages. $12.95.
Elizabeth Arthur’s first novel has some big ambitions. Its structure is intricate, its heroine complicated and its aim lofty: to show, in the context of a Himalayan expedition, the spiritual recovery of a young woman afflicted by guilt and uncertainty. The book is a considerable accomplishment. While it cannot absorb all its implications, its failures are never less than interesting and its achievements are vivid.
A work such as this assumes a special burden: to be convincing as mountaineering literature and as fiction as well. The author says that she is “indebted to all those mountaineers, living and dead, whose deeds I studied and whose books I plundered to learn what I could about climbing.” Despite some errors in the names of routes and peaks, she has repaid the debt handsomely, with brightly-observed climbing passages that do not patronize the reader with explanations of technical terms. A lot of the writing is reminiscent of the gritty precision of her earlier book, Island Sojourn, a glittering, realistic non-fiction account of almost two years on a remote British Columbia lake. She writes with the tactile grace of someone who has both registered and contemplated experience: The rock was cold in the shadow and hot in the sun. Once a bat came squeaking out of a crevice as I drove in a piton, and looked at me malevolently before he flew away. Every time I leaned forward to trace a bit of mica in the rock with my finger, the clinking of the hardware racked across my chest was like the tinkling of bells, the rustle of aspen leaves in the forest. From Wyoming to Nepal, the book repeatedly strikes us with its sense of observed life.
The marvellous descriptions come through the central figure, Temis Phillips, a tough, self-questioning and often very funny protagonist. Entangled with her brother Ryan and her husband Nicholas, she tries to free herself from the claims of her formidable ego. By the time she reaches the nameless Himalayan mountain of the title, in an expedition with eight other women, she has become the afflicted survivor of an avalanche in the Tetons that claimed the lives of both Ryan and Nicholas. Even before the accident, the introspective Temis had turned toward Buddhism; but enlightenment, she asserts, is not “a kind of present you get, for being good, perhaps.”
A Zen koan provides the book’s epigraph: “All the peaks around it are bare. Why is this one covered with snow?” On this mountain alone can Temis struggle to achieve a saving vision. She succeeds with the help of the very worldly Naomi, the woman on the expedition with whom her relations have been the most intense and antagonistic. It is she who rescues Temis, physically and spiritually. In the fatigued sight of the heroine, helped off the mountain after more than a week of storm, Naomi becomes the husband whom she loved and fought.
These climactic sections on the mountain are unfortunately the book’s weakest. Readers, of this journal especially, are unlikely to find a fully persuasive account of a Himalayan expedition. The higher the climb ventures, the less convincing it becomes. Temis is so busy searching within herself, trying to cast off her powerful, worldly will, that she fails to let us see the physical peak itself. As the book strains toward resolution, the literal details lose much of their immediacy and, consequently, their power to reinforce our sense of the psychology of the heroine. The dramatic climax is internalized; the expedition nearly vanishes.
Beyond the Mountain gives us some fine minor figures: Temis’ exuberant lover Beckett; a yak herder in whose hut she spends a chaste, moving night; a mute, entrancing child. But many of the Western characters are insubstantial, particularly Temis’ beloved brother Ryan. He is meant to be centrally important, but Ms. Arthur has left him largely undefined. And I wish that he and his sister had not been named after Greek deities. (Ryan is for Orion, Temis for Artemis.) Such touches hang heavy symbolic weight on a book that is at its best when it is most straightforward. But they cannot obscure this novel’s many virtues: its seriousness, memorable heroine and its striking imagery. Climbing fiction this good is a rarity.