In a strenuous, sad debut, a buff Southern California rock-climbing couple comes face to face with cancer.
Married ten years, journalist Molly and philosophy professor Tom Valen are world-class mountaineers, frequently scrambling over boulders in the Tahquitz Mountains east of Los Angeles, near their home. In November 1988, Molly, age 33, is hit by a falling rock, and the MRI reveals a cancerous tumor in her brain. She is given a year to life, and the devoted couple decide that Tom will take a leave from his school so they can take off on a last climbing spree to France, then to the Tatra Mountains—in what is then still Czechoslovakia—where they climbed years before and made good friends with noted Slovakian climber and national hero Stefan Borak. Though she insists on climbing, Molly grows increasingly debilitated, lapsing into the gibberish of the diary she titles “Possessed by Shadows,” while Tom feels a creeping sense of despair and helplessness. Meeting the cheerful, determined Stefan in Bratislava bolsters them, yet the country has been in the throes of intense communist oppression since the uprising of 1968, and many of Stefan’s family and friends have been arrested. Besides, the friends’ greatest accomplishments are behind them—like the climb of the Himalayan Nangat Parbat 15 years earlier, when Stefan saved Tom’s life. As a result, the story has an elegiac feel, unraveling to its doomed and inevitable ending. Molly and Tom, in alternate points of view, reveal glimpses of their triumphant past together as well as Molly’s early love for a master female climber she met as a teenager, a Czech named Sasa, and for Stefan. Ingenuously, Merritt weaves in a goodly lot about climbing, ranges and paraphernalia (it can all be jargon-heavy: glossary in the back), while fashioning a poignant portrait of a loving marriage nipped too soon.
A dark novel pulled under by communist machinations and human mortality.