Dead Water, By Simon Ings
Turbulent tides and hidden undercurrents
Sunday 28 August 2011
Eric Moyse, a fishing fleet entrepreneur in the far northern Lofoten Islands, is involved in rescuing survivors of an Italian airship that foundered over the Arctic in 1928.
A Scandinavian hydrographer whom Moyse finds half eaten by polar bears yields a notebook crammed with formulae describing dead water: a phenomenon of complex boundary layer interaction that could redefine physics. Or, as one character simplifies it: "You know, the way a propeller churns up waters of different densities so it can't go anywhere."
Moyse does know. Established as a container shipping magnate after the war, he applies the same principle to certain discreet cargoes. Biological weapons that governments need to lose but not destroy are locked into containers which, through those complex dead water algorithms, are made to churn endlessly around the globe, lost in manifests and traceable only through Moyse's secret codes.
While this opening strand is the thematic anchor for Simon Ings's superbly busy second novel of discovery and betrayal, piracy and espionage, it's only one of many narrative threads that circle the world and weave through time.
One of Moyse's containers turns up on India's Great Trunk Road in 1996, where Roopa Vish is investigating a forgery and smuggling empire. Roopa's dogged sleuthing adds plenty of colour and a moral intensity to Ings's pacy narrative. Glimpses of workers' slave-like conditions amplify Roopa's sense of injustice, and from her deskwork as a capable and idealistic anti-corruption detective, Roopa seduces her mark, suffers vicious reprisals and goes undercover as a shit-clearing bhangi (untouchable) to get at her target.
Ings keeps the plot tantalisingly just beyond her grasp, lending Roopa an aspect of persistent failure and anchoring the novel's theme of tentacular global corruption that will never fully be brought to book.
Looping through London's Blitz, the 2004 South Asian tsunami and piracy off Sri Lanka's coast, Dead Water sets up its own turbulence of engrossing narratives that on rare occasions is too clever for its own purpose. Twins killed in a New Delhi-bound train crash become djinns that flit through the novel's continuum with mischievous intent but limited purpose: a slightly lazy device for creating mystical interference patterns whose limited purchase on the novel's fluid dynamics merely serves to dissipate some of the naturalistic tension of Ings's energetic prose style. The train crash itself, however, is relayed with brio, as is the arctic adventuring and Roopa's torture.
The novel's pre-occupation with the clandestine possibilities of container shipping recalls the slightly more tongue-in-cheek adventuring of William Gibson's Spook Country, but the tone of Dead Water more resembles the opaque Middle-Eastern chicanery of James Buchan's Heart's Journey in Winter. Ings writes engagingly well, balancing pacy plotting with textured characters and opaque loyalties to tease the reader, and making for a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent yarn.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
Best underrated Christmas movies from Trading Places to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food