Sometimes a good storyteller can make us take a reflective pause in the middle of their story because the narrative is just that powerful and that beautiful. Seemingly insignificant scenes can take on a brand new literary significance. As I read Justin Go’s first novel, I was struck by how exquisitely he frames his prose to encapsulate the relationship between two lovers and highlight his tale’s themes of denial, loss, longing and silence. Much of The Steady Running of the Hour is set during the Edwardian period, in which deep passions are something lovers must sometimes hide from the world.
Hard to believe that Go wasn’t inspired by Ondaaje’s The English Patient—especially in his characterization of officer, soldier, and avid mountaineer Ashley Walsingham and Ashley’s one and only true love, beautiful Imogen Soames-Andersson, whom Ashley meets at a Royal Geographical Society lecture on Alpinism. Their transcendent love accelerates Go’s novel, taking us from the battlefields of the Great War to the ice-cold summit of Mount Everest.
Go’s contemporary, contrasting pair—young, wayward San Franciscan and self-confessed Europhile Tristan Campbell and his potential beau, Mirelle—often appear to occupy a place comparable to Ashley and Imogen, whose recognition of each other's separateness at least holds forth the promise of a relationship of some kind. Tristan’s surprising connection to Ashley’s vast inheritance becomes a turning point, mixing the generations and providing the details of Ashley and Imogen’s tempestuous love affair, an affair that steadily comes to haunt Tristan. Called to the London suburb of High Holborn and the law offices of James R. Pritchard, Tristan is asked to investigate a case that is proving to be extremely time-sensitive. Unremarkable Tristan has proved to be the first outside party in some time qualified to hold the Ashley Walsingham trust. Now the potential heir, Tristan is due to inherit Ashley’s estate set up nearly eighty years ago, an estate never claimed by the principal beneficiary.
At issue is a confidentiality agreement, connected to Ashley’s failed Mount Everest Expedition of 1924 and to the substantial fortune that was gifted to Ashley by his great uncle. Also associated is beautiful Imogen, the sister of Tristan’s great-grandmother Eleanor, an artist’s peregrine and self-confessed bohemian who later became a painter of some distinction. Unable to link Imogen to the inheritance and thus to Tristan, the lawyers are at an impasse. For some reason the trust was drawn up with great privacy in mind, a sense of discretion tied to the notion that Ashley believed Imogen would eventually come forward on her own to claim the estate.
Ordered by Pritchard to obtain substantial documentation, Tristan travels through the great cities of Europe, racing against time to find any official connection that might link him to Imogen and Charlotte, his grandmother, and thus hopefully to the money. In the hushed chambers of libraries and archival institutions, Tristan turns back the pages of Imogen, Eleanor and Ashley’s yellowed letters and battered diaries. He flips through accounts of wars and climbing expeditions, muddy trenches and violent parapets, fire and death, and vague accounts of Ashley’s untimely demise through a grainy reproduction: a snapshot taken at the Everest base camp, where the team seem to be straining to breathe the rarefied air as the clouds close around them in a wintry bleakness.
Delivering a truly virtuoso novel, Go tells of Ashley and Imogen’s endless love, a love cemented in Regent’s Park where a vulnerable young Imogen fanatically searches for her latchkey after she’s locked out of her family home. As Ashley closes his eyes, all he can think of is Imogen. Imogen herself, is certain that neither distance nor even death can prevent “the meetings of two hearts of sufficient will.” Lovely Mirelle becomes an unlikely confidante of sorts in Tristan’s quest, helping him connect to this vanished, wasted love of Ashley and Imogen, a love that will eventually ferry him to Sweden and Picarde, on to Berlin and deep into the wild landscapes of Iceland.
Mixing the past with the present, Go brings together four unforgettable characters as Ashley becomes Tristan’s contemporary rival, seemingly "frozen in his prime." Tristan learns of Ashley’s time as a courageous soldier, mired deep in the mud-filled Somme’s stinking dugouts, scenes as powerful and mighty as Everest’s icy terrain, where light is fractured and the stars are eternally ice white. There the inherent desolation of man against nature is balanced against the collateral damage of those like Imogen, who are left at home to shoulder the burdens of grief. Atop the world’s highest peak, this enigmatic climber who left a fortune to a woman he really only knew for one week will face his ultimate test. Imogen will be tested as well. Exiled in the winter of 1917 to a summer house in Leksand, Sweden, Imogen will lay the groundwork for Tristan in his efforts to find that one connecting piece to his grandmother.
Although both love affairs are heartbreaking, Tristan and Mirelle’s bourgeoning affection is perhaps more absorbing than Ashley and Imogen’s, perhaps because the former shows a recognizable honesty and a reality that the latter somewhat lacks, even when the force and strength of their attraction lends them something almost mythical. Theirs is a wary, awkward courtship punctuated and derailed by the chaos of war and by the many social obstacles in the time period in which they live.
Passion and love can be difficult themes to pull off without being melodramatic and overly trite, but Go’s careful phrasing and style coupled with his immense lyricism gives his novel the heft and depth of great literary fiction, in addition to the page-turning craft found in bestselling thrillers, mysteries and romances. Poetic and haunting, poignant and sad, Go’s novel is more than just a twin love story; it’s about the ghosts of the past and how we strive to reclaim them, even as we try desperately to escape them.