Tuesday 24 July 2012

Review: FIVA: An Adventure That Went Wrong

FIVA: An Adventure That Went Wrong, by Gordon Stainforth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Warning: spoilers!

When Gordon Stainforth asked me to read and review his new book, I jumped at the opportunity. His true story of an adventure going sour, and in the mountains of Norway no less, struck a chord and I couldn't wait to read it.

The story is a simple one: two brothers, young but obsessed with climbing, travel to the Romsdal region of Norway to climb a massive route on Store Trolltind. They underestimate the scale of the challenge and get themselves into bad trouble. I think every climber can remember biting off more than they can chew when young and gripped with ambition, so there's plenty to identify with here.

Gordon has chosen a very intimate first person point of view to narrate his book. At first, until I got used to it, this point of view jarred slightly and I found myself thinking maybe it was a bit over the top. Gordon writes from his own perspective, albeit from 1969 when he was nineteen, and in the first pages a lot of youthful exuberance and inexperience comes through--not a bad thing by any means, but it did take me a few pages to get a feel for the stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

This point of view is very narrow. We don't see much of the other character, John, because we're locked into Gordon's head. At first this bothered me, but as the drama of the story unfolds the sheer power of this writing style becomes very apparent.

FIVA goes beyond mere description. Because we're locked into Gordon's head, we see and experience every moment exactly as he does, and it's quite a ride: confidence giving way to uncertainty, frustration, the confusion of getting lost and off-route. When disaster strikes, the mental processes are mapped out with such amazing honesty that I found myself transported back to the (thankfully rare) occasions when I too have been close to death in the mountains.

It's all the more astonishing because this tale was pieced together forty years after the event, based on shared memories between the two brothers (which time had of course distorted). The reality of the story is driven home by frequent photographs taken at the time of the disaster. And the characters grow too: the experience draws out reserves of strength and survival skill in both of them, despite the mistakes they make that so nearly kill them.

After finishing the book, I'm left with the profound feeling that this is one of the best books about mountain misadventure that I've ever read. There are plenty of climbing books out there that feature harder routes, or higher mountains, even higher stakes. The beauty of FIVA is the unflinching honesty, the authenticity, and the intimacy. In experiencing such a harrowing experience from Gordon's perspective, so skilfully written, we experience it for ourselves in a way that many climbing books just can't manage.

Despite my initial misgivings about the unusual point of view, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this as a must-read for every lover of mountain literature. It deserves to become a classic of the genre, and based on the wealth of other enthusiastic five-star reviews I've seen on the internet for the title, I have no doubt it is destined for widespread success.

Find the book on Goodreads

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