Decompression, by Juli Zeh (Translated by John Cullen); book review

 

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The Independent Culture

At first glance, Juli Zeh’s latest novel could not be more unlike its predecessor, The Method, a chilling vision of a dystopian future where the state is obsessed with health and mass surveillance. Sven, a German expat, and his partner, Antje, run a diving business on the island of Lanzarote. Sven has enjoyed a comfortable existence for 14 years, but when new clients, Jola von der Pahlen and Theo Hast, arrive their fractious relationship threatens to destroy his serenity. Jola is the beautiful star of a German television soap and the daughter of a rich and powerful tycoon. She needs to perfect her diving skills before auditioning for the film role of Lotte Hass, a pioneering female diver and underwater photographer. Jola is convinced the part will boost her career. Theo is a writer, father-figure and, it transpires, a serial abuser of Jola.

Most of the narrative is from Sven’s perspective; his laconic voice deftly translated by John Cullen. Early on, Sven describes Jola’s physique: “[a] living statue. Jola had shaped her body like an artist. I frankly admired the result. I would have liked to offer her a word of praise, from one expert to another, but the danger of a misunderstanding was too great.” Sven takes his job seriously and is rattled by his attraction, Theo’s growing distrust of him, and the physical abuse he observes. We learn that Sven prefers “the safe side”. Having spent five years studying for a law degree, he surprised family and friends by dropping out to become a diving instructor.

Diving requires discipline and composure but Theo and Jola play a dangerous game, allowing their abusive relationship to spill out during their expeditions. They push each other around with near fatal consequences – at one point, Jola disconnects Theo’s oxygen supply. Sven surveys their antics with exasperation but finds his fascination with Jola hard to suppress. She flirts outrageously with him, while Theo’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.

Much of the suspense is generated underwater. When things come to a head, after an intense diving experience, Sven describes himself resisting Jola’s sexual advances. However, pages of Jola’s diary, threaded through his account, suggest a different, rather more sinister, story.

Zeh plays with our expectations throughout. Initially she builds tension around the love triangle, but gradually we realise that Decompression is going in another direction. Zeh is adept at describing the carelessness and perversities of the rich and famous. Like The Method, this is a story about obsession – this time with status, looks, and celebrity culture. Jola is a damaged woman and Zeh writes perceptively about emotional abuse, sadomasochism and self-loathing.

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