Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review: Submergence

Read 12/24/13 - 12/27/13
3 Stars - Recommended to those who are already fans of hostage-slash-love-slash-deep-thoughts-about oceanic-life-and-god-and-angels-and-hell-and-death novels told through the past and present experiences of both main characters
Pgs: 212
Publisher: Coffee House Press

I haven't written an actual, real length review since September, so go figure that I find myself itching to write one on a book that everyone else raves about but that has left me feeling incredibly underwhelmed.

Submergence, to be fair, isn't the type of book I would normally be drawn to on my own. The jacket copy alone was enough to keep it sitting in my unsolicited arc pile for countless months: James, an Englishman, is held hostage by a bunch of jihad fighters in Africa; a thousand miles away Danielle, a French bio-mathematician, prepares to dive down into the great oceanic depths in a submersible; the two recall their chance encounter and short lived fling as they prepare for what's to come.

This week, I found myself with some free reading time - two months ahead in my CCLaP reading, three months ahead in the upcoming TNBBC author/reader line-up - so I threw my goodreads To-Read shelf  out into the ether and asked Twitter to hand pick my next read. Submergence won by a landslide.

It sucked me in quickly enough. The first 40 pages or so passed by pretty smoothly. The next 40, the same. Around the 100 page mark, though, I began to realize that I hadn't yet felt any sort of connection to the main characters or their current ordeals, which had a numbing effect on the constant recollection of their short romance together the year prior. Halfway into the book, and I'm feeling emotionally removed, even cold, towards our protagonists? This does not bode well, right?...

Sprinkled pretty generously throughout the novel, perhaps to break up the monotony of James' suffering at the hands of the jihads in Africa, and Danny's preparations for her upcoming deep sea journey,  JM Ledgard allows them time to discuss some pretty heavy topics in a "getting to know more about you" sort of way. They toy with how exploring the vast, deep, darkness of the ocean floor is comparable - and even more complicated - than exploring the wide openness of outer space; whether or not they believe in God and whether God had the foresight to create enough angels to look over us all; how if falling down into the ocean is like falling down into hell then climbing up out of the depths is like climbing up towards the heavens; how the smallest, slightest microbes in the darkest corners of the ocean are capable of out-surviving humanity so long as we just leave them alone; how evolution is a friend and an enemy to most species, including our own...

While these ideas, in and of themselves, are quite intriguing, I felt that James and Danny didn't take them as far as they could have. Their conversations left me sloshing about in half-formed concepts and aching for more "meat and muscle". This speaks to how I feel Ledgard handled his character development overall. I can't help but imagine James and Danny as half-formed, too. They're all shell and skin with very little heart. Like cardboard cut-outs. Only.. fleshier? I know how awful that must sound. It could just be Ledgard's writing style; it reminded me very much of JM Cotzee and JG Ballard (oh my, could it have something to do with first name initials?!) They all take this very clinical, very dry, outside-observationist approach to story telling. As if watching events unfold behind a glass window. As if everything had the emotion purposely blown out of it, leaving it all.. hollow.

In the end, though it was a fairly quick read, Submergence left me floating along, anticipating a great big crushing wave that just never came.

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