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)
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 Prince Harry leaving the armed forced to pursue conservation projects in Africa
- 4 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Justin Kelly interview: On James Franco playing a gay man who renounces his homosexuality
Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East