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The pull of Everest: Diane Awerbuck reviews Sarah Lotz’s The White Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Sarah Lotz’s new book pulls you into a death zone inhabited by ghosts and spirits, writes Diane Awerbuck

The White RoadThe White Road
Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton

Why are mountains female? Because they’re a bitch to climb. Sarah Lotz gives the annoying Robbie character that punchline, but it’s as good a place as any to talk about the real issues of her new novel, The White Road: personal challenge, suffering, and how exactly you know when you’re going mad.

The journeys of discovery in the novel are parallel trips: underground, in the terrifying world of “the death caves” of Cwm Pot in Wales, and up Everest itself.

Lotz knows what she’s talking about. She did her research on climbing first-hand, and it shows in the detail of the claustrophobic cave sequences and the near-death experiences in the snow: “Food tastes so different up here. I feel like I need to add salt to everything, and find myself craving curry and sugar.”

Not only the characters’ appetites are sharpened: Everest exerts a terrible, compulsive pull on its climbers, even when they understand they are behaving in ways that will probably get them killed. The “death zone” is littered with bodies of climbers – like Green Boots, who died in 1996 in “the highest graveyard in the world”. Because the corpses are frozen they have to be chipped out: some teams charge $30 000 to retrieve a body, and the Sherpas “don’t like to touch them”.

How to reconcile lofty emotional ideals with physical frailties is a thread that runs through The White Road. Juliet Michaels, “the Angel of the Alps” finds herself dubbed “the Angel of Death” after her climbing partner dies. Her mission at the beginning of the book is to set a new record for a female climber, find sponsorship, and remove her son Marcus from his up-itself boarding school.

But she also wants to achieve her climbing goals “by fair means” – without supplementary oxygen, and not “on the backs of Sherpas”. Lotz also gets in her critical commentary about the mistreatment of Nepal by China, so we’ll not expect a Mandarin translation of The White Road any time soon.

What Juliet shares with the other main character, Simon, is the conviction that they are haunted by a version of TS Eliot’s “Third Man”, a ghostly figure who “walks always beside you”. The phenomenon was documented by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and, while other historical climbers describe the apparition as a companion, the constant presence for Juliet and Simon is punishing and vindictive: the worst voices of their conscience. Simon especially finds himself appalled at the shallowness of his old life, and determines to do the right thing for once.

Their progressive mental deterioration is documented in her notebooks and Simon’s posts for his sensationalist site, Journey to the Dark Side. Laying the ghosts to rest has become the mission for both climbers, though they belong to different generations, and we track their descent narratives with dread and fascination.

Stylistically, the publishers have given Lotz a freer rein. While The Three and Day Four are cult hits and great reads, they are occasionally frustrating because there’s a sense the writer has been told to hold back. The scenes in the Japanese suicide forest in The Three, for example, are the bits that make Lotz special, and The White Road is good because it’s this kind of writing. She never loses her grip on authentic, character-driven action, but it is that signature style – an apparently casual but really searing ability to strike the right image – that is impressive and indelible. Haunting, you might say, and spiritual, and cathartic.

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