The Sound of Gravity – Joe Simpson

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The Sound of Gravity

I have read and loved all Joe Simpson’s non-fiction books; torn between admiration of his courage and disbelief at the way he repeatedly puts himself in danger. I was unaware that he’d made the move into fiction writing until this book popped through my letter box, but I’ve since discovered that this is actually his second fiction novel. Once again I’m torn – this time between wanting him to go back into those dangerous situations (so he’s able to write another non-fiction account of his adventures) and being pleased that he has at last decided to stay inside and do nothing more dangerous than sharpen pencils.

The Sound of Gravity begins with a climbing accident in the Alps. A man has to let go of his girlfriend’s hand, leaving her to fall to her death and him with a decade of guilt. The book goes on to cover events leading up to this tragedy and details of his slow recovery afterwards.

I initially loved the vivid descriptions of both the surroundings and the raw emotions.

He held his breath as she died. She vanished with a swiftness that unbalanced him. It snared him from a weary sleep, waking him with icy immediacy. She simply fell away and out of life, dropping noiselessly down into the cold air.

But after a while I began to get snow fatigue. Every page seemed to describe yet another snowy outcrop, each with its own near-death experience.

It seemed to happen with cartoon-like speed. With a grating noise of pulverised rock the slab that had formed the roof dipped down and began to topple from the ridge. He pulled hard on the abseil tape, running on the tipping slab, watching as his crampons kicked sparks from the rock and he made a despairing lunge. His chest pounded painfully against the ledge as he felt the roof fall away below his thighs and his legs plunge into emptiness.

This left me thinking about the differences between fiction and non-fiction. Did I only love Joe Simpson’s previous books because I knew they were true? Were the endless near-misses so much more exciting because they involved the lives of real people? I guess it all comes down to the fact that I just didn’t care about the characters in this book – they had so many accidents that each one began to lose its significance.

If you’re new to Joe Simpson I recommend starting with Touching The Void. The Touching The Void DVD is also very good, especially the extra feature documentary  - it is, in my opinion, the best extra feature I’ve ever found on a DVD.

I’m sure that the technical details will mean that this book will appeal to climbers, but I think the average reader will prefer his non-fiction titles.

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Have you read any of Joe Simpson’s books?


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15 Comments

  1. I haven’t read Joe Simpson before but I have watched the film of Touching the Void, an amazing story.

    You’ve got me thinking about the fiction/non-fiction thing. I had exactly the same problem recently with Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night that takes a hard-hitting subject (female infanticide in India) as a basis for a fiction novel but doesn’t deliver on plot or characters. The magic of fiction is when the reader is drawn into the story and wants to know what happens next. If the reader can’t believe in the characters then the book is not going to work.

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, It is good to know I’m not the only one having this problem. It sounds as though I should avoid Witness the Night as I know I’d be really frustrated by it. I think I’ll have to think about this whole fiction/non-fiction thing a bit more and write a post about it.

  2. Ellie says:

    I didn’t know he’s written fiction either. I might suggest this to my dad as he was into rock climbing when he was younger and I know he’s read Touching the Void. I’m wondering as someone who is quite into the whole landscape and the experience of the outdoors he might like this more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ellie, Let me know if your Dad enjoys it – it would be good to know if his fiction is appreciated by climbers :-)

  3. Sandy says:

    I think I did see Touching the Void on DVD. I love hearing about real stories, with death-defying near scrapes and such, but I can see where you might grow weary of it in a fictional setting.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I prefer the death-defying scrapes in non-fiction, but don’t mind a few people dying in fiction books. It is interesting how we like seeing different things in the two different genres.

  4. Isn’t there a movie that also starts the same way that book does? Haven’t read any of his book, but I’ve seen them around the book blogsphere. As you said, they seem to be especially appreciated by people who love snow sports (where I’m not included). If you didn’t know the author of The Sound of Gravity, would you have recognised Simpson’s writing?

    1. Had to google it because it was bothering me! Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone – his girlfriend’s dangling from a cable car and he can’t hold onto her. Vaguely remember watching it years ago.

      1. Jackie says:

        Liz, Thanks for helping me out on that one – I had no idea! I haven’t seen Cliffhanger.

    2. Jackie says:

      Alex, “If you didn’t know the author of The Sound of Gravity, would you have recognised Simpson’s writing?”

      I’m not sure. I think the subject would have made me guess his name, but I think the writing is a bit different. There are a lot more descriptions of the surroundings in this one, whereas his other books have a lot more details about the people and the countries. I think they had a lot more internal thoughts too. I’m not sure though – it has been a few years since I last read one of his books.

  5. Kailana says:

    I have never heard of this author before. I am going to have to look into him…

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, I hope you decide to read one of his books – it is amazing what he manages to survive. :-)

  6. Alyce says:

    I knew I recognized his name from somewhere! I read Touching the Void in the past year (or two) and thought it was excellent nonfiction. I know that I enjoy survival stories much more if they are nonfiction – then when things happen that are “unbelievable” I can be amazed at how it really happened. In a fiction book though it’s just not as exciting because I know it’s made up.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alyce, Touching the Void is his best book, but the rest of his non-fiction books were all very enjoyable too and I recommend giving them a try. This has really put me in the mood for a real survival book – I’ll have to see what I can find in the library tomorrow. :-)

  7. Kathleen says:

    I haven’t read any of his work but am convinced I should start with his non-fiction.

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