It’s an age-old story: boy meets girl, they fall in love then are separated by obligations, with the question of whether or not they end up together in the final chapter. However, J.M. Legard’s novel Submergence is anything but an age-old story, despite fitting within this simplistic premise.
Danielle Flinders (or “Danny,” as she is known by outside of her professional credentials) is a biomathematician; specifically, a mathematician and oceanographer concentrating on the estimation of microbial life in the deepest layer of water under the Earth, the Hadal deep. Born in London and schooled both at St. Andrews and by the jet setting lifestyle of her family, she is a scholar, a teacher, a snob, and a trollop; she is a senior scientist on oceanic expeditions and dives in submersibles through layers of fantastical creatures to rest on the ocean floor, and to peer over the abyssal cracks that go even deeper still. She is completely affected by the vast waters of the world.
The sand thereabout was coarse sugar and the footsteps she made down to the sea were demerara. The water’s edge was turbid and swirling with gravel and shells and seaweed. There must have been a storm. She felt the need to touch the Atlantic again. She pulled off her gloves, got down, and set her hands in it until they lost their feeling. The depths of the oceans filled her working mind, but for that moment she was determined just to look at the play of the wind on it and the gulls wheeling above it. She had come to see the sea, not the ocean.
James More is an Englishman who grew up just off the North Sea, now posing as a privately contracted water engineer in Somalia where in truth he gathers information for the Secret Intelligence Service in London; he is a spy. A former military paratrooper, he visualizes Bruegel while ruminating on angels and demons, quotes Milton and evokes passages by his ancestor, Sir Thomas More, even as he moves among jihadists, terrorists, holy martyrs, informants and camel herders, tracking “tiny movements of small people. Here today, still there tomorrow.” He is devoted to his dangerous vocation even as he dreams of retiring to the countryside to ride and tend to his horses, as if time could be suspended to some Regency past. He is, however, no stranger to killing and death.
There is a dwarf antelope in east Africa called the dik-dik. They are easier to kill from a distance than to catch. In his intelligence reports he called the fight against jihadists in Somalia the dik-dik war.
But the jihadists were more like weeds, really, he thought. If you left them alone, they grew thick on the ground. If you cut them down, they came back stronger. So the strategy employed by the dik-dik war was no kind of strategy at all, just a periodic spraying from the air.
The two meet by the slimmest of chances at the aristocratic Hotel Atlantic on the French coast during some random Christmas holiday. An immediate attraction to both the sensual and the sensually intellectual aspects in the other and a familiarity with being intrinsically consumed by knowledge (as well as an intrinsic pleasure in sharing that knowledge) creates a sudden and deep connection between them. While their time together measures only days before each must return to their given professions, they remain simply and inherently rooted to each other.
Now that I’ve set the story up (and neglected to mention other huge plot lines), let me tell you that I have given you a straighter exposition than you will get in the book itself. This is not a linear novel; you are thrown right in and then expected to ride the ebbs and flow through time and into the backgrounds of both Danny and James in ways that are not always clear or easy. Yet the splashes and glimpses are all the more impacting in that they are unsettled and punctuated. Had their individual stories been presented in a straight line, more compartmentalized, they would have stalled and become expected, bogged down by prose. (The narrative eschews chapters or headings of any kind.) Instead, we get a tidal feeling of being constantly awash in new stimuli, forcing us to stay engaged, to re-evaluate and create afresh the where, what and who of any given section (only one of which is more than three pages long; most are far shorter). The complexities of Danny and James – their situations as well as their characters – are heightened by the intermittent him/her, then/now, musing/action, memory/dream dynamics, so although this novel may be more difficult to slip into, by the end of the book, one is hard pressed to let go of it.
And the prose is gorgeous: both thick and gossamer in the same breath. That author Legard can make highly scientific and deeply anthropological themes both heavy and poetic at the same time is thrilling.
Millions and millions of years ago we lived in the ocean. When we emerged we had to move in two dimensions, instead of three. That was painful at first. No up, nor any down. We learned to drag ourselves along without legs then with them, going faster and faster, and faster again, by any means. The lack of a third dimension is one explanation for our need to head out over the horizon. Another explanation is that we were raised up from chemosynthetic life in the deep ocean to become photosynthetic life at the top. Having ascended from the eternal night we cannot stop ourselves from heading towards the light. We are moths in the thrall of the sun and the stars, shedding off darkness. That is our instinct, but our conscious nature is also to be drawn to the unknown. We want to know what is behind the wood, what the next valley looks like, and the valley beyond that. We want to know what is in the sky and what is behind the sky. Those have been our obsessions since our beginnings, yet the curiosity does not extend to the ocean. We forget there is so much darkness in our world….
In the end, Submergence may be one of the most unsettling books you will read in a long while. You may wonder where the plot – if there really is one – is going, and if you can even dare hope for a resolution at the end of the novel. You may feel like you are doing a lot of wandering without knowing if there is a destination to be reached at the end. But before too long your sense of anticipation is heightened by not knowing where you will be at the next turn of the page, and while you may not be sure of a resolution you will be buoyed by the surety that if it does come, it will not be a pat, synthetic one. This story, indeed, may be an old one, but it certainly does not feel old – eternal, perhaps, but never, in any way, old.