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David Lagerkrantz, Himmel över Everest (The Sky Over Everest)

Pirat,  2005. ISBN: 9164201678

Reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2006:1

Climbing or mountaineering has produced more worthwhile literature than any other sporting activity except perhaps fishing. Very little of it, however, has been in the form of fiction. Several have tried, but most have failed. Apart from M. John Harrison’s Climbers, the climbing novel (at least in English) is an undeveloped literary subgenre. All the more pleasing, therefore, to be able to report that Swedish journalist and novelist David Lagercrantz’s venture into the field is a very creditable addition to the ranks of mountain-eering fiction. In 1996, two guided expeditions to Mount Everest were caught out by a storm high on the mountain, with the loss of a number of clients and guides. Lagercrantz wrote an earlier book on Swedish climber Göran Kropp, who was also on the mountain at the time of this disaster, and he now uses these factual events as the outer framework of this fictional account. Having read various non-fictional accounts of this disaster, I initially found it hard to avoid comparing the two, at least early on in my reading of the novel. The more I read, however, the more I accepted it as a powerful story in its own right. Given its background, the action of the novel moves inexorably towards a known end. As in Greek tragedy, interest is not focused on how things will end, but rather how that end is reached. There is a rich gallery of characters, many of whom are given a depth which further adds to our interest in precise events and conflicts. The book ranges more widely than the Everest expedition it depicts, especially from the perspective of Swedish solo climber Jacob Engler. Tales of his exploits in other mountain ranges expand the reader’s view of climbing as a sport or vocation, as well as developing Engler as a character: “Hummingbird Ridge was a scalpel that slit open the old wounds and with its slender blade added new ones.” Engler’s solo expedition is contrasted with the much larger commercial expedition financed by clothing magnate Paulo Villari, which is guided by the latter’s childhood acquaintance (one hesitates to say friend), Giuseppe Cagliari. These characters have good and bad sides, which adds complexity to their relationship as well as explaining their reactions under the stress of the climb and the storm that befalls them. With events on the mountain and down at base camp to describe (as well as those prior to the expedition), Lagercrantz employs an overlapping narrative structure and a circular construction where later events clarify earlier ones. Symbolism is a dangerous device in the wrong hands, but he makes good use of it here to portray the state of mind of his characters as they struggle on the mountain: “Evil forces were set in motion. A darkness, a shadow crept towards them and now he realized. It was evening and darkness and with them a cold and a loneliness which would surpass all he had experienced.”

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