Jonathan Cape, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Submergence, By J M Ledgard
Wednesday 24 August 2011
James More, a paratrooper turned intelligence officer, posing as a water engineer, is held hostage by jihadi fighters on the Somalian coast. Not necessarily swallowing his cover story, they call him Mr Water. During his incarceration, he remembers a woman he met at a hotel in France, also on the coast, Danielle (Danny) Flinders.
Danny is a biomathematician specialising in the study of microbial life in the Hadal zone – deep-sea trenches, more than 6,000 metres down, where chemicals alone can sustain life. Danny believes that an understanding of such life is necessary for human survival. She is a strong, independent woman who will normally take a random crew member into her bunk for the duration of a research trip. She and James fall in love in the hotel, which, not for nothing, is called the Atlantic.
On the coast of another ocean, James is frogmarched into the surf and subjected to a mock execution. As a child, James lived by the North Sea and played a game in which he had to walk across a tidal river, at one point becoming submerged: "You had to hold your nerve." The fighters take him to an Iraqi doctor and then on a voyage by dhow.
This novel is a deceptive scrapbook of detail and abstraction, of fictional narrative and encyclopaedic interludes. A heavier hand might render these didactic but Ledgard writes beautifully and in his own style, whether describing Masai initiation rites, huge-eyed deep-sea creatures or the delicate calibrations by which you might realise you are falling in love.
Chronology is fluid – very occasionally, at the expense of story. There are jaw-dropping suggestions – that the paradisical backdrops to suicide bombers' videos might be influenced by exposure to Disney films, in particular Bambi – and a harrowing episode describing the stoning of a young girl, a tightly controlled piece of writing of awesome power.
Themes slide across each other like thermal layers in the deep ocean. Danny searches for answers in the Greenland Sea while James retreats into utopian fantasies. In a profound meditation on cruelty, pity, belief, art, science, hope, love and mortality, the novel's truths settle in your consciousness, perhaps never to be forgotten.
Nicholas Royle edited 'The Best British Short Stories 2011' (Salt)
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
MOBO Awards 2014: Jess Glynne hits back at 'ridiculous' criticism of nominated white artists
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational and sensitive
The Apprentice 2014: Nurun Ahmed and Lindsay Booth fired in double elimination
MOBO Awards 2014: Sam Smith sweeps the board with four gongs
The Apprentice, episode 3 - review: Lord Sugar hacks away at the deadwood with double elimination
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters