Friday, June 28, 2013

Kathryn Schulz on J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence: The Best Novel I've Read This Year

Vulture - By

This article originally appears in the July 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower boasts in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. “Why, so can I, or so can any man,” replies his co-conspirator, Sir Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur. “But will they come when you do call for them?” 

In his new book, Submergence, the Scottish writer J. M. Ledgard calls spirits from the vasty deep — the Hadal zone, to be precise, 20,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean. He calls them from the wadis and salt flats of the Somali desert; from the firelit intimacy of a hotel in winter on the coast of France; and from that deepest, vastiest place of all, the solitary confinement of consciousness. And they do come, all of them — forming, together, the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
The story itself is straightforward. On holiday in France, a man and a woman meet and fall in love. She is Danielle (Danny) Flinders, a biomathematician searching for microbial life in the least hospitable parts of the ocean. He is James More, a British spy posing as a water engineer. Sometime after their seaside idyll — which we only learn about in flashbacks — he is taken hostage by members of Al Qaeda in Somalia. 

As the book unfolds, Danny, unaware of James’s plight, sets off to explore the hydrothermal vents beneath the North Atlantic. James, meanwhile, is beaten, interrogated, and dragged by his captors from place to place: an improvised prison in Kismayo, a makeshift camp in the Somali badlands, a skiff on the Indian Ocean laden with weapons and the carcasses of sharks, a mangrove swamp where the jihadists hide out from American forces. 

As a plot unmoored from its prose, this could be a film treatment for the next Bond movie, or jacket copy for John le Carré. But Ledgard is up to something very different here. The real subject of his book is scale: the vastness of time and space, and the impossibility of squaring either one with our own experience. James works on the human scale: “He was concerned with alleys, beliefs, incendiary devices.” Danny works on the geologic one, “in a part of the Hadal deep whose unlit clock ticked at an incalculably slower speed.” You could put all of Great Britain above her head, Ledgard observes, and its highest peak would not break the water’s surface.
Full review

No comments: