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book review

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

“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.

That’s an arresting image, but it is also, figuratively, the problem: What is over our heads is over our heads. As a species, we are terrible at grasping the trans-human scale, a failing that has dire practical consequences. (With its passages on overfishing, acidification, and climate change, Submergence is partly highbrow cli-fi, that emerging genre of ecological dystopia.) But it also provokes an existential paradox. We know that, in the scheme of things, we are insignificant, ephemeral, fated to die. Yet we go on brimming with our own centrality, unable to shake the sense of mattering. Like the real scale of the world, the real scale of the self eludes us. Ledgard, channeling James, puts it concisely: “There were many things he had not properly imagined. Death was one, the ocean was another.”                                 

Submergence, Ledgard’s second novel, came out in England in 2011. But it didn’t appear here until March, when it was published, to inexplicably minimal fanfare, by the small but excellent Coffee House Press. This is why writers have day jobs, and, since 1995, Ledgard has worked for The Economist, where he currently covers war and politics as the East Africa correspondent. 

That background serves him exceptionally well. For starters, he is wonderful with facts, which drift through the dark waters of this book like epistemological luminescence. We learn that the vertical migration of certain marine creatures is equivalent to birds flying from their nests into outer space. We learn about a species of squid whose two mismatched eyes require it to swim at a 45-degree angle to see out of both. We learn about Sumerian legends, Somali ecology, Finnish painters, the iconography of angels. 

And, of course, we learn about the terrorist network in Africa and the Middle East. Ledgard supplies credible details: a Muslim doctor who believes UNICEF is a “cover for the Crusaders,” a suicide bomber whose cell phone shows Ryan Giggs scoring a goal for Manchester United, young recruits “walking for days in jeans and sandals, shouldering their guns like skis.” But Ledgard also has a conscientious reporter’s respect for complexity. James is a sympathetic protagonist but not a hero, and he knows where he stands: neither wholly aligned with nor wholly innocent of England’s history in Africa. 

Likewise, the kidnappers do terrible things, but Ledgard neither dehumanizes nor excuses them. At one point, a 14-year-old girl, the victim of a gang rape, is stoned to death in a town square. The well-handled horror of the scene inheres not just in the violence but in its ritualism, which makes the murder almost uneventful. The crowd gathers, the men stack their stones and throw and mostly miss and move in closer, the whole thing passes in an afternoon as might a soccer match or the shadow on a sundial; about suffering they were never wrong, the old masters.

It’s easy to see why Philip Gourevitch, the journalist best known for his work on the Rwandan genocide, has praised this book. I heard echoes of him here, especially in Ledgard’s ability to look steadily yet without voyeurism at violence. Spy novel or not, I heard some Le Carré as well; dread accumulates in Submergence like numbers ticking upward on the depth gauge of a sinking sub. I also heard Anne Carson — her way of drawing humans to scale against time; her precise, world-consuming keening. (“One characteristic of sea creatures is their constant movement,” Ledgard writes. “Not grief, not anything can stop them.”) Above all, I heard W. G. Sebald: his meditative quality, the dreamscape structure of his books, his habit of playing the most traumatic passages in history with the damper pedal down. T. S. Eliot famously claimed that great books retroactively influence their predecessors. After I read Submergence, Sebald’s consummately perambulatory work suddenly struck me as having had something liquescent and underwater about it all along.

But then, after reading this book, everything struck me as somewhat liquescent. Like water, text is a medium, but no other novel this year has left me so immersed. I started Submergence one afternoon, cut short a social event that evening to keep reading, stepped off a train at midnight with twenty pages left, and stood under a light on the platform to finish them. 

In those pages, as Danny descends toward the ocean floor, one of her colleagues cuts the lights in their submersible. Out of the darkness, two worlds surge forth — one tiny and fragile, the other immense and ancient: “Everything that belonged to them disappeared, except the light on the switches and on the emergency lever. The water was alive with bioluminescent fish.” It’s a tense scene turned suddenly transcendent. 

That, writ large, is the magic trick of this strange, intelligent, gorgeously written book. Ledgard shows us the emergency lighting of our internal universe, and the alien vastness of the outer one. He does not attempt to reconcile them, or to console us about our fate. He doesn’t have to. The one way our minds register scale correctly is through the feeling of awe, and the one consolation of consciousness is our ability to share it. Submergence is a dark book, but in such an unusual sense: Ledgard turns out the lights, and everything, inside and out, begins to glow.

*This article originally appears in the July 8, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.