Submergence is a strange, heavy, dense, deep novel.
Sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable due to its sheer brutality.
The story: the British spy, James More (a descendant of Thomas More), who pretends to be a water engineer, is captured by jihadists in Somalia. (Water will become important again soon, right in the next sentence.) Meanwhile, Danny (who’s female), a bio-mathematician is preparing for an important dive deep into the ocean, which will probably supply her with hordes of data about the most ancient, most primeval, most indestructible life forms of the planet.
(Danny is obsessed with depth, and she often ponders about the fact that both for individual human beings, and for humanity as a whole, it’s much more difficult to travel inside, downwards, where there’s more and more darkness and pressure. Compared to this, discovering the space and emptiness above us – traveling outward, forever farther, higher, faster – is much easier and much less painful.)
While James faces deprivations in captivity and Danny prepares for her dive – both locked up in their eternal loneliness and abandonment, both afraid of the unknown inside and out – they often think about the other, and about their story together: a past Christmas in a small hotel in the French countryside where they first met, and where they had an affair that only lasted for a couple of days, yet engulfed their whole life and being in that short time.
The story of these few days unfold slowly, tucked in between the chapters dealing with the present life of the main characters (mostly of James).
The intention is clear: while he’s being brutalized in captivity, the few days of intimacy, real closeness, and deep human bond he experienced with Danny start to occupy a unique place in his mind, and his memories of the time spent together become something he can hold on to in order to keep his sanity – even if all the depth and intimacy he experienced with Danny was more or less an illusion, because Danny is unable to simplify her work – which is her innermost essence – in a way that others can understand it, and James isn’t even allowed to disclose his real occupation.
And don’t get me wrong – both Danny and James do what they do out of a very real obsession, and they even keep working during their Christmas holidays, so in their case we might say that their jobs occupy a crucial place in their life, and that they devote a significant part of their innermost selves to their occupations. The occupations they can’t or are not allowed to share with the other.
Perhaps it’s due to this ultimate impossibility-to-share that this novel often speaks in a language that distances me from the characters to the extent I don’t like to be distanced.
And I feel distanced even if there’s an abundance of beautiful and cosmic passages here – about how we are such a young and perishable species (and the only species that’s mesmerized by its own consciousness), about how most organisms live hiding in the depth, in small nooks – and parallel to this, there’s a deeply human melancholy here, a desire for life, and a desire for intimacy (because, after all, we probably really are enamored by our own consciousness, and we ache to share our secret depths with someone).
(Of course that’s another question whether we feel that the parallels drawn among the themes of the ocean, humanity, individual humans, depth, and so on are too direct or not – for me they are a bit too direct.)
So there’s a lot of fine, telling, often painfully beautiful or unsettling details here – a simple but touching simile; a memory of the now far-away Christmas (for example, when James thinks he can hide himself from Danny and then it turns out that Danny can read him like an open book – which, in this case, isn’t bad because it means that someone truly pays attention); or a present event (for example, when James masturbates in his cell with the intention to soil the space around him – and he deliberately avoids thinking about Danny during his act of rebellion).
But these tender or brutal passages are often lost in the sea of encyclopedic, political, or schoolteacher-like ruminations. I often feel that Ledgard-the-journalist defeats Ledgard-the-fiction-writer, and I don’t think that’s particularly desirable in a novel. For literary fiction, the style of this novel is too dry. Sure, you can write things like: “James was traumatized by certain experiences during his captivity to such an extent that he lost all his ability to act” – but to me this feels more like journalism, not fiction. And before I get completely lost in my train of thought: this isn’t non-fiction. This book is literary fiction, only not very successful as such.
Not always successful – because when Ledgard decides to dig a little deeper (yes!) into his characters, into their thoughts, and into the way they experience their lives (be it either the invocation of memories, or the deprivations and mortal danger of the present), then I also feel this depth, and I’m touched and unhinged, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and they crawl into my dreams. However, when Ledgard goes on to deliver a lecture about the political situation in Somalia or about Islam, then I have a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting that these are James’ thoughts, even if the lectures are prefaced by saying “James thought that…”
In the end, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, this is an extremely strong and affecting book (perhaps – just perhaps – partly because it’s based on real events), and it more or less works as a novel, too – that’s for sure that I want to find out what happens to the characters (I’m more interested in James’ fate than in Danny’s, though, probably because there’s much more depth to James’ character, and I naturally feel more about him than about Danny). But all the lecturing and explanations do nothing good for me here.