Calculated Risk by Dougal Haston

Review by Review
Tuesday 30th May 2006

A review of Calculated Risk by Dougal Haston

Mountains and books are my passions, so any opportunity to be in the former and eat up the latter has to be grabbed.  To alleviate the boredom of an afternoon at the computer I penned a few words in response to the invitation from planetFear to review Calculated Risk.  My gamble was rewarded with the arrival of Haston’s novel in the post, and now I must pay my dues in return for a good read.

Dougal Haston is legendary in the history of British mountaineering.  And he is well deserving of that accolade, in a number of respects.  However, Haston the novelist was a side of which I had previously been unaware, being ignorant of his foray into mountain literature.  A Haston novel ….?  Would it give an insight into the Haston not revealed in his own and other’s words about his life, but only subtly in his voice as a novelist?  Would it be full of passion?  Would it be thought provoking?  I wonder at the “for whom” and the “why” behind Haston’s novel.  Would it have been the precursor of more fictional writing, or was it somehow a medium in which he could give vent to feelings withheld from his autobiography In High Places?  Questions to which he cannot now give answers.

Calculated Risk may not be the most polished of novels …. I agree with the note that Robin Campbell provides in this new 2006 edition.  The plot is but a simple one, a meager narrative of two climbs, with what at times are insubstantial characters.  However, the coarseness of the novel itself is perhaps an artefact of it being a work in progress.  Haston’s 1977 death in an avalanche above Leysin precluded the opportunity for any further refinement.  Nevertheless, his book provides a compelling read.  The detail of the novel with regards mountaineering has a convincing authenticity.  Reading the book one could imagine it to be entirely an account of something that really happened … so that you have to keep reminding yourself this was a fictional work rather than a telling of mountaineering incidents in which Haston was involved.  While never quite believable as a novel, it almost presents itself as real-life and is none the less convincing for that.  While lacking in finesse, the novel is captivating – an effortless read which turns the pages and holds your attention.  With an honesty of feeling and opinion the book gives voice to Haston’s attitude to climbing and his arguably selfish approach to life.

Don’t expect a masterpiece – but enjoy it for what it is.  In what is effectively just a draft of his intended novel, Haston succeeds in holding our attention and entertaining us, while provoking reactions to his approaches to mountaineering and to life itself.  Go read it …!


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