MYSTERIUM. By Susan Froderberg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 288 pages. $26.
Susan Froderberg’s 2010 debut novel, “Old Border Road,” was a desert-baked character study of a young woman on an Arizona ranch trying to make the best of a lousy marriage. Froderberg’s must-read new work is a fact-based mountain-climbing adventure titled “Mysterium.” Far from sophomore-slumping, it ascends, literally and figuratively, vividly capturing the outer edge of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual travail.
Froderberg whips her language into disciplined service to her story. And what a story it is, based on the 1976 climb by 22-year-old Nanda Devi Unsoeld up the Himalayan mountain for which she was named.
Here, it is the angelic Sarasvati “Sara” Troy who climbs her namesake, the fictionalized highest peak in the Indian Himalayas, also known as Mysterium. Sara is joined on the venture by her father, Professor Troy, a philosopher and eminent mountaineer; a physician, Arun Reddy, and his son, Devin; expert climber Wilder Carson and Carson’s wife, Vida; and Virgil Adams, a veteran of a previous Mysterium expedition, and Adams’ wife, Hillary. Accompanying the party are a trio of ghosts: Sara’s mother, Wilder’s brother and Reddy’s wife.
The climbers’ names point to Froderberg’s ambitious construct: a frigid, inverted Inferno with the tough but vulnerable Sara, the Dante-esque guide Virgil, the impulsive Wilder, the controlling Reddy, the apprehensive Vida and even a Sherpa named Karma. Such symbolic weight might be too much were it not counterbalanced by engrossing alpine details and rich backstories.
Atop the pedal point of mortality is the hum of sexual tension between ex-lovers Vida and Reddy and new lovers Sara and Devin. The Sherpas and porters feel an ill wind in such sacrilegious encounters and fear the mountain will take offense.
The mercurial mountain seduces, enchants and punishes, and, for Sara, it becomes the mother she lost. It is “her mother’s calmness, her stillness, her fortitude. ... Sweeps of avalanche that ruptured from the cliffs were like instances of her mother’s temperament, the tremble and rumble of them like her belly laugh, and all the surrounding whiteness held the goodness and certainty of her mother’s intent.”
The characters’ distinctive dictions inflect not just their speech but their journal entries, book excerpts and letters that punctuate the plot.
A former critical-care nurse as well as an academic philosopher, Froderberg has carefully contemplated body, soul and their fragile nexus. That pays off superbly as the air thins, and the surrealism of the terrain, the hallucinatory wanderings of oxygen-robbed brains and the discomfiture of sapped bodies converge cinematically.
Two climbers “shoulder their carries and start the hump to Camp I, the sky like frosted glass. They are thick with clothing and fully armored, their faces greased and masked, heads hooded and capped, eyes goggled and wide. They move through the phantasmal three-dimensional terrain like alien explorers on a distant planet. ... The water in their guts swings and slushes about as in buckets. The frozen river of ice below their feet groans and creaks.”
There is in the high-altitude risk seeking of “Mysterium” the classic savage Freudian balance between the death drive and eros. Life is affirmed in its hazard.
Adams suggests an alternative: love. In his words, “caught in the rapturous arms of the other,” lovers are no longer “left to wander up and down in search of a higher place or a better world, for they find the entire world right where they are, there in the eyes of the beloved.”
The enticing peril of precipice or the delicious calm of a soulmate’s embrace: In which of these terrains will Sara find her transcendence? Her hard-won discoveries in this incandescent tale will leave you breathless.
Reviewer Alexander C. Kafka has written about books for The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.