An artist's novel that makes us pause and think
FICTION: SubmergenceBy JM Ledgard Cape, 191pp. £16.99
JAMES MORE is an Englishman known to the wider world as a water expert assigned to Africa. In reality he is an agent reporting on al-Qaeda activity. But, for all his sophistication, he has been caught and is now confined to a filthy room in a half-built house in Somalia. It is ironic, as he defecates into a pit swarming with flies and beetles, to discover that his prison was originally intended to be a bathroom in someone’s home. “He kept to the corners of the room where the noxious smells and creatures did not often reach. The floor was sandy concrete. It broke apart when he scratched it.” The captive imagines seeing himself shot through the head. “It was Stygian and the world outside was fire.”
This powerful opening sequence immediately evokes the heat of Africa and signals the intent with which JM Ledgard, a native of the Shetland Islands and the Africa correspondent for the Economist,approaches an ambitious narrative that is stark, serene and contemplative.
The influence of the great German original WG Sebald breathes through the book, yet this is to Ledgard’s advantage. It is five years since he impressed with his highly symbolist and profound, if slightly pretentious, debut, Giraffe. Submergencenot only surpasses it but also builds on that achievement stylistically. It is both personal and public. His central character is facing certain death, yet his mind races with historical and literary references as well as singular anecdotes, many concerning a brief and passionate affair with a high-powered, self-absorbed biomathematician, Danielle Flinders, whose specialist area is the darkest depths of the ocean.
There is no disputing that Ledgard is an elegant, determinedly intellectual and disciplined writer, yet there is also immense humanity in this novel, which deserves to be one of the strongest challengers for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is the kind of novel that wins awards, and if it does so it will be because it deserves it. The African sequences are brilliant; even more interesting is the way Ledgard responds to Somalia. It “is not the Africa that is known. You will never see a naked man there. Everyone is shrouded, covered up. There are no nomads shouldering crates of Coca-Cola with scarification on their cheeks and chests.”
On one level the story is about an unlikely romance between two driven professionals. Danielle, half-French, half-Australian, with her exotic tastes and marauding and impersonal sexuality, is formidable and not entirely convincing. Her characterisation is the weakest element in a novel that fires the imagination. But although she fails to move beyond the two-dimensional, her situation near the close of the narrative more than justifies her presence. And Ledgard, a profound thinker, provides her with some fascinating insights. The meeting between the two happens by chance. Both have arrived alone at a French hotel with the express aim of getting through the Christmas holiday. Danielle is the predator – not that James is complaining.
Their conversations are expectedly abstract. “We use the words ‘sea’ and ‘ocean’ interchangeably in English,” she says, “and that’s fine, I do it myself, ‘sea’ is a powerful word. A yacht belongs to the sea, it’s aimed always to the next port of call. Surfers likewise belong to the sea, not the ocean. You saw how tiny they were on the waves today . . . When they ride out a wave, it carries them home, to land. The sea has a transformative power, its own history . . . The sea goes across, that’s the point. The sea is a pause between one land-bound adventure and another. It joins lands. The ocean goes down and joins worlds.”
Ledgard had to create a cerebral character capable of making such pronouncements, so complex and profound are his insights, which enhance rather than overpower the narrative.
Elsewhere, James More, a Catholic and descendant of the humanist martyr Thomas More, author of Utopia(1516), recalls Foxe’s Book of Martyrs(1563) and considers the author. “Foxe was a fanatic, yet also a kindly and gentle man, a good friend, by many accounts. He was tutor of the children of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in 1547 . . . Foxe was involved in suppressing the cult of the Virgin Mary. He escaped from England during the reign of the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor, and lived in poverty among the Protestants in Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Frankfurt. He wrote his first account of Christian martyrs in Geneva, with particular attention to the Protestant martyrs, and returned to England when Elizabeth took the crown.”
The brutal killing of a young girl, stoned to death as an adulteress for daring to report having been gang-raped – based on a real incident, in 2008, the tragedy of 13-year-old Asho Duhulow, honoured by Ledgard in his acknowledgments – is the reason James begins to think about martyrdom. He endures a succession of horrific tests, culminating in a dramatic scene at a creek where his last thoughts are, somewhat bizarrely, of the wool markets in Langland’s Piers Ploughman. Fire opens “the surface exploded like a star . . . He looked at death . . . went under again, and swam away . . . In this sense at least, his submergence was shallow.”
A world away, Danielle is 1,832m beneath the ocean off Greenland, in a diving sphere that has plunged down into the waters. She knows the sheer pressure could kill her. Yet as a scientist she is beguiled by the sights visible through the glass panel of the Nautile. One of her colleagues asks, “Can you imagine seeing a dead whale dropping past our window ? . . . Just think of the weight in worms and lice in the stomach.”
Beyond the science is the theme of death, and in many ways Ledgard’s book is a graceful and solemn meditation on mortality. Fiction at its finest recognises no boundaries, and here is an artist’s novel that achieves the ultimate goal of any writer: it makes us pause and think, and think again.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times