Novel of the week

The Fall

Simon Mawer <em>Little, Brown, 442pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0316725242

With Mendel's Dwarf (longlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize) and The Gospel of Judas, Simon Mawer has established himself as an accomplished storyteller. And in his sixth novel, an epic about climbing and lost love, he has found his ideal subject.

Set in postwar Wales and London during the Blitz, the novel describes the tangled lives of two families, the Dewars and the Matthewsons. It follows the intense childhood friendship between Robert Dewar and Jamie, the son of a world-famous climber who died in mysterious circumstances. Both fatherless, the boys follow Jamie's father in their overwhelming love of climbing. Their adolescence is observed through the usual rites of passage (first sexual experiences, shared girlfriends) as well as their short-lived but glorious climbing partnership.

Mawer reveals both the bonds that connect the two families and the secrets and lies that threaten to divide them. In the mountaineering scenes, he is careful not to let the exhilarating drama overwhelm his story. Instead, his writing is simple and evocative. A former climber, he uses this knowledge to detail the dangers and delights of each ascent. He is good on landscape, too, and has fun with the names of different parts of the Eiger (Difficult Crack, Death Bivouac).

But this novel is much more than a Boys' Own adventure. Mawer's depiction of climbing partnerships - of the two young men tied together, striving upward and feeling each other's every movement - also works as an analogy of the complicated relations between the two families. And there is an ongoing investigation of the lure of climbing itself: it is an obsession with extremes; a death wish; a way of avoiding familial commitment.

In his descriptions of the Blitz, Mawer musters enough wartime slang and bomb-bright vignettes to grace a mid-evening TV adaptation. We have Conchies, back-street abortions and people saying "Keep it steady, George" while sifting through the rubble. But the assured depiction of the parents' intertwined relationships means that the book is more than just a stereotypical war romance.

Though Mawer is occasionally given to superfluous statements, he excels at nuance, the secreted fact that will later prove vital. Extended metaphors inform one another; images and themes resonate across the entire novel. This technique of delayed, or even dispersed, disclosure is a significant factor in Mawer's success as a storyteller. He resists the melodrama and cliche into which his story could so easily have fallen.

The novel becomes an elegy for a life of lost opportunity and love, a meditation on ageing and regret that gently supersedes the eulogy to the thrill of the climb. "There is something old-fashioned about climbing," writes Mawer. "It lets in emotions that one does not readily admit to any longer: companionship, commitment, even love."

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, America is no longer invincible