The Sound of Gravity by Joe Simpson

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The Sound of Gravity by Joe Simpson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Joe Simpson uses his extensive mountaineering experience to create an authentic romantic adventure story set in the Alps. Not for the faint-hearted.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0224072649

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Joe Simpson is best known for Touching the Void, a gripping autobiographical account of his near death experience climbing in the mountains of Peru. The Sound of Gravity is his second novel, in which he draws on his knowledge of the mountains to create a convincing and credible story.

Patrick is climbing in the Alps with his girlfriend. They are taking an unusual and difficult ascent, and it is winter. A storm blows up. Whilst they are camping overnight, Patrick's girlfriend loses her footing. He manages to catch her hand, and then she slips through his fingers and falls into a chasm. The novel details the days and hours in the run-up to this tragedy, and the aftermath, both immediate and long term.

I confess that one of the reasons I was interested in reading this novel is that the incident which Joe Simpson is most famous for is that his mountaineering colleague cut the rope that held him over an abyss, thereby plunging him to almost certain death. In Touching the Void Simpson is extremely understanding of his friend's predicament, and generous in his acknowledgment that this action was necessary and inevitable. I find it interesting that Simpson should chose to write a novel about a man who finds himself in a similar situation. It is also interesting that Simpson's main character in The Sound of Gravity is utterly traumatised, for decades, by the event. This trauma has the whiff of truth about it.

What also reads as entirely realistic is Simpson's descriptions of the mountains, mountaineering, mountain weather and climbers. Climbers seem to be a very strange breed. It is hard, when reading the descriptions of the slopes – precipices? – that they are ascending or falling down or getting trapped on not to think that they are suicidal. But Simpson does capture the adrenalin rush well. It is almost possible to understand why they do it. However, what he also describes well is the agonising pain of frostbite, the exact way that a body shuts down when suffering from hypothermia and what it is like to be caught in an avalanche. It makes you feel cold to read this book.

However, I am not sure that authenticity is quite enough to carry this novel. There is a relentlessness about the descriptions of yet another appalling storm or one more life threatening injury. There is a breathless pace to the action that left this reader exhausted. The visceral descriptions of the injuries that the mountaineers suffer are in many cases revolting. There is a good story here, but Simpson could have done with an occasional change of pace and a lightening of the mood to keep the reader's attention and ensure that they care about the characters. The stylistic choices that Simpson makes keep the reader at a distance from the interior life of the characters, rendering them sometimes rather two dimensional.

This is a man who is totally familiar with his subject matter. He is a mountaineer, and the knowledge of the mountains that he has climbed and the many crises that he has endured imbue the novel with authenticity. If you are interested in mountaineering this is undoubtedly a novel for you. If you are interested in people pushing themselves to beyond their limits or you like an adventure story with lots of action, then, again, it is certainly worth reading. But if you want to get a true understanding of the psychological drive of a mountaineer and the real effect of trauma, then for me, this novel falls short.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestions:

The Ice Soldier by Paul Watkins

Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green

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