Submergence begins in a rathole where a man is confined by jihadists. The Englishman, James More, hears the Indian ocean and relives icy showers taken in his house in Nairobi. Eleven thousand miles away, an eventual ferry ride across the Mediterranean Sea, a biomathematician, Danielle Flinders travels to a sumptuous hotel on the French Atlantic coast. In his incarceration, James, descendant of Thomas More, recalls his chance encounter with ‘Danny’, whilst she prepares for a journey to the depths of the Greenland Sea, seeking the origins of life.
Like any truly accomplished work of fiction, Submergence defies genre: part love story, part adventure but much else. The author is unafraid of digression, meditating on morality and phenomena of the physical world. My notes on references to seek out, from the first twenty three pages alone, cover Stygian crypts; the Somalian city of Kismayo and the Norwegian county of Finmark; the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest building); a Nabokov quotation; how Nairobi acquired the name ‘Nairobbery’; the identity of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar (fifth Qajar king of Iran); Ibsen and Mark Twain references; the wonderful, allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman, and a Czeslaw Milosz quotation. That may sound exhausting, but the author’s skill is to demonstrate the complexity of a character, a person; not just an intelligence operative, but also an admirer of Donne’s poetry and of Norse mythology.
Water glides through the narrative, thematically linking the settings and characters, from the dry water pipe in the Somalian rathole to the turbid waters that greet Danny’s arrival at the hotel. The story begins with water, and concludes the same way. Early in the story, Danny says:
‘We exist only as a film of water,’ she said. ‘Of course, this goes against the religion of the Garden of Eden and the canon of political documents ending with the international law of the sea which promote the primacy of man on the planet. Just take a look at it,’ she said, running the pencil over the lines and curves. ‘We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.’
Within the two-hundred page book are surprises, even a single Sebaldian picture of Hugo Simberg’s The Wounded Angel. It’s a strange, beguiling and brave book, highly recommended. I am very grateful that Nicole made me aware of the book’s existence, and will read Ledgard’s Giraffe later in the year.