Thursday, 16 June 2016

Book Review: Fragile Edge by Maria Coffey

The Everest disasters of recent years have focused world attention on humanity's obsession with high-altitude mountaineering. What is it that drives people to court such awful risk? And what is the real cost in human terms? Nobody has written more eloquently about these matters than BC author Maria Coffey. Fragile Edge details her love affair with elite British mountaineer Joe Tasker, who perished with his partner Joe Boardman while attempting Everest's "unclimbable" Northeast Ridge in 1982. 

Coffey writes about her experiences first as an observer of the hard-partying mountaineering scene and then during her long journey towards an understanding and acceptance of the tragedy that cost her the man she loved. This book gives us an insider's view of the life of a world-class mountaineer; it also recounts Coffey's deeply moving pilgrimage with Boardman's widow across Tibet, retracing Boardman and Tasker's steps as far as their abandoned Advance Base Camp, 21,000 feet on Everest.

My Review:
This book has been on my shelf for a long time so I decided it was time to read it. I was interested in reading a book about the world of mountain climbing from the viewpoint of the girlfriend left at home, worring about the safety of the climber.

In 1982 two of Britain's brightest climbing stars-Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman-vanished while climbing a new route on Everest. Maria Coffey had been Joe's girlfriend for about two years when he vanished. His body has never been found. This is her story about her difficult relationship with Joe, competing with the mountains for his attention, and the pain and confusion of his death. It also covers the memorial trip to Everest with the widow of Pete Boardman.

As Maria is not a climber, I knew in advance that this book was not going to cover any climbing, other than hearing short stories from Joe and others who had returned from a recent expedition. I knew that the book was going to focus on all the highs and lows of her relationship with Joe, and how she coped with his death.

To be honest, I didn't like Joe very much. By definition, climbers agree that they are selfish people and it is not easy to have a relationship with them. They are prepared to leave loved ones for months at a time for dangerous climbs that could kill them, and even when they are at home, they are planning new trips or doing talks about where they have been. Maria had doubts about getting involved with Joe and I can see why. She talks about how impatient he would get when she tried to explain her fears, his attitude being 'you know what you signed up for'. When she tried to show her feelings he withdrew emotionally, leaving her wondering if she meant anything to him. He goes away for months at a time without a care yet sulked when he got home early to find that Maria wouldn't cancel a short holiday that she had planned months ago with friends to keep her occupied while he was away. And of course, he was also leaving her for periods of time to have at least one affair with another woman. I don't understand why she was staying with someone who treated her so badly.

Maria is honest about her insecurity about Joe and where she fit into his life. I had the impression that Joe was happy to have someone to watch his house and tend to his needs when he came home but didn't actually love Maria herself. I think he loved the idea of a loyal girlfriend waiting for him more than the reality of being in a relationship with her. Had he lived, I have doubts about their relationship lasting very long as he certainly didn't care about her feelings or needs and had no intention of marrying her and having kids. She admits that being lonely led her into a brief affair and she seems unhappy all the time as she remembers her life with Joe. It's not a life that I would have chosen to live. Her life with her husband Dag sounds much happier.

While the story was quite interesting, there was a lot of repetition as she rehashed the same fights that they were having about her feelings and his lack of attention to her, and Maria confused me at times by jumping around in the timeline, meaning that parts of the book lacked cohesion or structure. The part where she describes being told about Joe going missing was somewhat vague and it made it difficult to feel the emotion of the situation.

I'd describe this as an interesting and decent read, rather than anything brilliant but I think there will be a good market for this book amongst non climbers like me. I have already read her second book which I enjoyed much more.
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