Review: ‘Touching the Void’ by Joe Simpson

This is another example of me doing things back to front: I watched the film version of ‘Touching the Void’ a few years ago, without considering that there was a novel out there. Several years and a career in teaching later, I’m now teaching this text to a year eleven class, and whilst they might complain about it, I was absolutely enthralled.

Joe Simpson’s story is a bit difficult to get into, I’ll grant you: the technical jargon alienates the reader who isn’t a climbing fanatic, and unless you’re willing to work past it to get to the bigger picture, I can see why it would be hard to enjoy (or think you can endure) this book. However, it is beyond worthwhile detouring past this bit of powder-snow, because the substance underneath is gritty and worth gripping on to.

I think what I loved most about Simpson’s recounting of the events on Siula Granda were the greater themes underneath it: of human survival, courage and relatable endurance. Nothing is sugar-coated: Joe doesn’t add divinity or impossible mental and physical strength to his tale, instead he tells it how it happened, and it is this reality which is most gripping. The bare bones of the story is what makes it intense: it stands on its own merits, instead of relying on language to bulk it up and turn it into a fictional feat of heroics. It relies purely upon the accident one man encounters, and the events that occur following this: his humanity is the most fascinating part. This is particularly evident towards the end of the novel. Simpson doesn’t dwell on his recovery, the scarring he must have received both physically and psychologically. No, he remains focused on the point of the text. The notion of survival prevails, but once he is safe the novel ends. In one way this is slightly frustrating: as a person who enjoys knowing the mindset of others and how they function, I would have loved to have seen how Joe coped with the ramifications of his survival. However, I cannot deny that this means Simpson stays true to the course of his novel. He remains on the path he set himself, and ends as he began: at the bottom of the previously unclimbed mountain, wondering what the future holds.

The only semi-fictional part comes with Simon’s accounts: these were actually written by Simpson, based on what Simon told him. Personally, I think he does this well. The prose is markedly difference and it doesn’t appear to reflect Joe’s own personal struggles. I don’t think I’d have actually realised it was the same man writing both parts if I hadn’t found out afterwards.

Speaking of Joe’s struggles, one part I found particularly poignant was his descent according to ‘the voice’. We all have those little motivators, something inside us which speaks to us, so it’s a process which is particularly accessible on many levels: success, drive, perseverance…The text expands to cover a wide ground of themes that every reader can identify with on some level, and it is this component which causes the text to connect with readers.

I could witter on about Simon’s role: was he right to cut the rope? Did he have the right to make that decision? And so on and so forth, and I think it’s a question that’s exceedingly difficult to answer unless you have looked death in the face, so the argument becomes circular. I’d rather end with the focus remaining on the novel’s contents: its persistant hope in the face of defeat, and its message that life is not a straight line, that the end isn’t as easy as we think it might be, and that life is worth fighting for. Despite my reservations on the specialist subject involved in this text, Simpson actually created a narrative that speaks to people from all walks of life, and it is this that makes ‘Touching the Void’ connect Simpson to his readers across the void between experiences.

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