The Fall

published by Little, Brown in UK and US (2003)

Winner of the Boardman-Tasker Prize for Mountaineering Literature, 2003 and
a New York Times Notable Book of 2003

"...one of the most credible accounts I've ever read of two people falling in love."
New York Times

Set partly wartime Britain, partly in the anarchic world of British rock climbing in the early seventies, The Fall is about many kinds of falling: off mountains, into love, out of love, from grace.

The novel follows two stories that are interlinked: the life and times of Jamie Mattewson, a world famous mountaineer and his friend and one time climbing partner, Rob Dewar. But the other story that moves behind this is the story of their parents during the years of the Second World War. How the one impnges on the other and how memory and betrayal have their effects across the generations is the central theme of the novel.

 

Read an account of my "real" fall...

US reviews...

 

UK Reviews:

From the Independent, 18th June 2004

... Simon Mawer's compelling drama... An elemental epic with plenty of Mary Wesley-style spooning back at base camp and some heart-stopping moments on the sheer cliff wall.
Emma Hagestadt


From the Yorkshire Post, 11 October 2003

... a crisply told, convincing narrative that weaves a fascinating web between two generations of climbing families towards a reverberating revelation on the last page... fascinating, subtle and rewarding ... a convincing and compelling novel for climbers and non-climbers alike.
Terry Gifford

From the Independent, 22 March 2003

The stuff of mountaineering – climbers held together by ropes, lives literally dependant on trust, unpredictable dangers, revelations of beauty – is so rich in metaphor, it's a wonder more novelists don't make use of it. Apart from Christopher Burns's The Condition of Ice there have been few notable examples in English recently. Perhaps the metaphor frightens writers, the worry that a narrative about death-defying climbers would be assumed to aspire to Wagnerian significance?

Simon Mawer is as fearless as his climbers and has boldly produced a novel that is at once a ripping yarn and something more meditative. He lets his subject invoke big themes but also pegs his writing with enough technical detail for plenty of passages to be about mountaineering, and nothing but.

The Fall is a memory novel, with strands set in the present, the Forties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – narratives whose significance deepens the more they intertwine. Patterns recur: there are two romantic triangles, two scenes in which a woman is shown how to climb, two moments at which the wounds to a lover's heart seem writ large as medical crisis. But as to who becomes whose mother, you must find out for yourself.
Patrick Gale

 

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From the Independent on Sunday, 16th March 2003

...Simon Mawer's excellent new novel... technical prose of high altitude... a beautifully balanced novel... both mountaineering and marriage are described as terminal illnesses, and both provide Mawer with obsessive, infected behaviours that possess the reader's imagination
James Urquhart

From the New Statesman, 10th March 2003

...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.

...he is careful not to let the exhilarating drama overwhelm his story. Instead, his writing is simple and evocative... this novel is much more than a Boys' Own adventure. Mawer's depiction of climbing partnerships 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.

Mawer... 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.
James Hopkin

From the Sunday Times, 9th March 2003

Any novel set in a subculture stands or falls by how well it initiates its readers into the procedures, codes, myths and convictions of that world. Mawer manages this brilliantly. A mountaineer himself, he is clearly fascinated by how mountains can cast a sometimes fatal spell over individuals. The Fall is in part an analysis of the sublime madness of mountaineering: an attempt to show how people fall in love with what are, after all, only lumps of rock and ice...

Mawer proves himself a fine time-traveller, slipping smoothly back and forth between pre-war Wales, London in the Blitz, the 1970s and the present day. He is attentive to the touch and feel of these different worlds, and above all to their changing colour schemes: the brick-dust duns and mortar-greys of wartime London, for instance, or the hippy psychedelica of the early ’70s.

What makes The Fall truly valuable, and truly unusual, is its sense of landscape. Much British writing these days seems to be self-consciously urban... Mawer’s novel, distinguished by its keen descriptive sense of rock-face, crag, lake, snow, and stone, bucks that trend beautifully.
Robert Macfarlane

 

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From The Spectator, 1st March 2003

Mawer has some of Kipling's miraculous gift for describing raw, brutal physical activity...
Francis King

From the Times Literary Supplement, 28th Feb 2003

The Fall is the most meticulously plotted of all Mawer's books, yet it also stands as his most unrestrained and direct achievement. The book's mountaineering sections are breathtaking...

[His] concerns are as old as the hills, his novels are carefully planned, though there is nothing over determined about this book. He writes with a strong sense of moral perplexity, as if something unnervingly complex about human nature was in the process of being misunderstood. It is this which makes The Fall as moving and as powerful as it is.
Mark Crees

From the Guardian, 15th February, 2003:

Full of unobtrusively planted period detail... The Fall is at its considerable best in its depictions of human extremes. Dinah's career as a nurse accompanying ambulances in the Blitz; her humiliation at the hands of a backstreet abortionist; the boys, precipice encurled, exulting on the mountainside - all this is written up with almost effortless fluency.

All credit to Mawer for writing a book whose real theme - as in Jack London's Yukon stories - is the sheer insignificance of puny humanity when set against environmental splendour...
DJ Taylor

From the Times, 12th February 2003:

...compelling drama... as visceral and disciplined piece of writing as the climb itself and... as gripping as Jon Krakauer's factual book Into Thin Air.
Russell Celyn Jones

From the Literary Review, February 2003:

...irrespective of whether he is drawing on research, personal experience or imagination, the climbing scenes are stunningly well executed. Authentic in their detail, vivid in their description, gripping in their portrayal of the emotional and physical drama, they are - most importantly - not just action for action's sake, but germane to the human stories Mawer unfolds. Just as involving though, are the relationships at the novel's core; in their own subtle way, Diana and Guy's doomed love and Rob and Jamie's doomed friendship are every bit as heart-stopping as the thrills and spills of the climbs
Martyn Bedford

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From the Sunday Telegraph, 9th February 2003:

...an elegant, uncluttered writer... mountain-top dramas so vividly described that they will grip readers who have never left their armchairs, [combined] with scences written in a quite different vein. [Mawer] is good on sex, the way it can ambush people when they least expect it, and as the story tracks back in time, anatomising the tangled relationships of an earlier generation, he paints a vivid picture of wartime London...
David Robson

From The Observer, 2nd February 2003:

Simon Mawer's work is rich with a desire to see through to the core of things. His Gospel of Judas was a taut thriller of religious ecstasy and sexual ambivalence; The Fall scales its passions down to the dynamics of friendship and family, yet retains an Old-Testament, elemental quality. In Mawer's world the sins of the forefathers lie heavy on the next generation, even if that generation believe themselves to be pioneering Free Love

The novel's slow-burning revelation of past desires and self-abnegation stands in direct contrast to the tense, involving battle of wills between Rob and Jamie on the Eiger. Surprisingly for the layman, the struggle of their ascent is felt in the pit of the stomach, even if you don't know a bivouac from a crampon...

The war hangs over this group of carefree miseries, silently telling them that their experimentation and even their attempts to conquer nature are fatuous. It's in the Blitz section that this book really comes alive, as if Mawer needs an allegory of hell in order to really claim his characters... in their younger incarnations [Diana and Meg] scorch the pages whenever they appear... there's a sense that the younger generation feel the tension woven into their narrative and seek contrived extremity in lieu of the real thing.
Zoë Green

From the Sunday Herald, 2nd February 2003:

...Mawer's descriptions of climbing really are so powerful that they lift you - willingly or otherwise - up into the gut-wrenching heaven and hell that lie beyond the clouds, along paths human feet were never meant to tread... a gripping, two-generation saga... a well-crafted page-turner...
Susan Flockhart

From the Economist, 11th January 2003:

With one novel about genetics and another about ancient papyrus scrolls, it is no wonder that Simon Mawer has a reputation for being a brainy read. But that is to ignore the emotional richness of his writing...

... In less talented hands, the writer's quest to capture the intense, elusive allure of mountains might well overwhelm a quiet novel. But Mr Mawer is well aware of the metaphorical significance of struggle. His settings are finely painted with the colours of the time: neon today, gravy-brown for 1950s Britain. His men are boyish, competitive, his women on the wary side of dishonest. And his narrative surges with an energy that thrusts the story forward to the very last page, from which a startling new light shines on all that has gone before.

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US reviews

 

From the New York Times, January 5 2003:

''Dramatic'' is certainly the adjective of choice for ''The Fall,'' Simon Mawer's fine new novel about mountaineering… The story... extends back through over half a century of personal history, involving two generations of two different families of climbers. Adding in their spouses and lovers, this makes for a potentially unwieldy cast of characters, but Mawer… handles the complexity with impressive ease. He shuttles smoothly between decades and generations, piecing together a rich composite portrait of a group of people ruled by (and often misled by) their passions -- both for the mountains and for one other…

… (Mawer) writes with patience and great physical precision, investing every scene with a cinematic abundance of sights and sounds, whether he's describing a traumatic kitchen-table abortion or the aural drama of the London Blitz during World War II… And that precision extends to his depiction of psychological states as well. The scenes in which 19-year-old Diana falls for the much older (yet somehow more innocent) Guy Matthewson are utterly convincing, one of the most credible accounts I've ever read of two people falling in love.

But for a novel like this to succeed, the mountaineering scenes must exhilarate, and this is never an easy task. Climbing and sex (two activities that are compared perhaps once too often in the novel) present similar challenges to a writer, descriptions of each being vulnerable to excesses of procedural detail on the one hand and unbridled effusiveness on the other. Mawer avoids both traps; he gives us scenes that convey the giddy experience of climbing without burying us in either technical jargon or purple rhetoric.

''There is something old-fashioned about climbing,'' Mawer writes near the end of the novel. ''It lets in emotions that one does not readily admit to any longer: companionship, commitment, even love.'' The Fall is old-fashioned in just that way. By combining the adrenaline-filled appeal of a mountaineering adventure with the emotional clout of a love story, Simon Mawer has created an exemplary model of that quaint old relic -- the satisfying read.
Gary Krist

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From the Washington Post, January 2003:

The Fall's stark opening hardly prepares the reader for the gaping valleys and dizzying peaks of Mawer's latest work. The book's plot simmers with abandoned youthful friendship and slightly sordid love affairs, employing mountaineering and memory as its controlling metaphors…

…When Rob, Jamie and their mothers and lovers start to climb, Mawer uses the occasion to craft mini-essays on mountaineering and paints gorgeous landscapes ...the novel ripples with energy and verve... Mawer guides readers expertly into the jargon and slang of the mountaineering set with the surest of hands, crafting a solid and physical prose that pulls even the rankest of amateurs upward with it. At one moment, he describes a novice's impression on her third day of climbing, and captures perfectly the blend of growing confidence and continued apprehension… (he) is even better with the landscapes against which The Fall unfolds. The glum features of a Welsh mining town sigh into flower in his prose…

When Mawer essays the glories of conquered peaks and the supplicant landscapes below them, his words even evoke comparison with those capital-R Romantics… Yes, we've heard this language before, but Mawer freshens it beyond immediate recognition into an active presence. His strengths in guiding us through the nooks and crannies of mountaineering and its stark landscape suggest that he could successfully cast off brain for brawn in his future work…
Richard Byrne

From the Daily Camera, February 2003:

...a story beautifully woven against a backdrop of stunning scenery...

From San Jose Mercury News, January 2003:

Mawer seems to be that old-fashioned thing, a novelist of ideas with a gift for embodying them in good stories... "The Fall'' could be his most original book, although it could also be that I am entirely ignorant of the fictional world of climbing; in any case I can think of no book to compare it to except Trevanian's "The Eiger Sanction,'' which is unfair to both writers -- Mawer is simply not a genre writer...

Mawer is a wonderful writer with a considerable gift for novel construction as well -- two sets of skills that do not always come packaged together -- and he gives his books the ring of truth because he knows things and he does his research. I look forward to his next obsession.
David L. Beck

 

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From the Courier-Post, January 2003:

Simon Mawer has given his latest novel a wonderfully allusive title and a story to match.A tale of love and betrayal among two generations of British mountaineers, The Fall is about physical strength, moral weakness and the enduring, tenuous and even treacherous connections of the heart. It's an uplifting, disturbing and sumptuously entertaining book by a writer at the top - make that the peak - of his game
Kevin Riordan

From Publishers' Weekly, December 2002:

Uncommonly wise and painstakingly crafted, this tale of struggles on personal and physical slopes ranges from present-day Wales to blitz-era London, tracking two generations of tangled love affairs...

...Mawer has created characters and situations that overflow with truly believable pain and exhilaration, and he endows the narrative with a surging energy that pushes the book forward, all the way to an end which, like the final line of a haiku, casts a startling light on everything that came before it.
PW

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The Fall paperback cover, Little Brown UK

Read the first chapter

 

US hardback jacket...

...showing how wrong you can get things

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