A love story, a spy story, and a vivid portrayal of Africa and the secret depths of the sea.
In a room with no windows on the coast of Africa, an Englishman, James More, is
held captive by jihadist fighters. Posing as a water expert to report for the Secret
Intelligence Service on al-Qaeda activity in the area, he now faces extreme privation,
mock executions, and forced marches through the arid badlands of Somalia.
Thousands of miles away on the Greenland Sea, Danielle Flinders, a biomathematician, half-French, half-Australian, prepares to dive in a submersible to the ocean floor. She is obsessed with the life that multiplies in the darkness of the lowest strata of water.
In their confines they are drawn back to the Christmas of the previous year, and to a French hotel on the Atlantic coast, where a chance encounter on the beach led to an intense and enduring romance. James, a descendant of Thomas More, escapes to utopias both imagined and remembered, to fragments of his life before his incarceration, to books read, to paintings and music that haunt him now. Danny is drawn back to beginnings: to mythical and scientific origins, and to her own. It is to each other and to the oceans that they both most frequently return: magnetic and otherworldly, a comfort and a threat.
Click here to read Ledgard’s interview with Fiction Advocate.
Read Ledgard’s Research Notes for Submergence here.
New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2013
NPR Books Best Books of 2013
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013
Library Journal Best Books of 2013
“Ledgard writes from deep immersion in his well-imagined characters and setting, telling a strong central story involving a terrorist hostage-taking and a perilous deep-sea dive, and deploying language at once precise and flexible . . . Submergence is a hard-edged, ultracontemporary work about people a reader cares for, apart and together, through extraordinary precarious conditions.” —New York Times Book Review
“An extraordinary fusion of science and lyricism . . . [A] darkly gleaming novel about love, deserts, oceans, lust and terror.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Every once in a while, a critic will be mesmerized by a book that stands out from — even wipes the floor with — all other books that have come his way of late. . . . Prose merges with poetry; shocks detonate like depth charges, and characters’ fates actually matter in Submergence, an astonishing novel that utterly immerses the reader.” —Malcolm Forbes, Star Tribune
“What makes the book remarkable is its poetically rendered and remarkably intelligent glosses on Islamic fundamentalism versus the West, on Africa, and on the oceans….[P]rofoundly readable and unfailingly interesting.” —Publishers Weekly, boxed review
“Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.” —New Hampshire Public Radio, “Summer Reads 2013 Edition”
“[James More and Danielle Flinders's] stories become dramatic explorations of conditions far larger than their individual destinies—a meditation on our species and our planet at a time heavily shadowed by the prospect of extinction.” —Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker blog
“Submergence wonderfully superimposes two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. . . . Like the depths of the ocean, there is much about this strange book that is hard to understand, which makes it all the more worthy of exploration.”—Wall Street Journal
“Submergence delivers with its striking understanding of terrorism and its advocates. . . . Ledgard can mesmerize like Philip Gourevitch.” —Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“Profoundly readable and unfailingly interesting, this beautifully written novel tells two stories in parallel. James More, a British spy posing as a water engineer, is taken captive by jihadists in Somalia; the counterpoint to this viscerally horrific tale is his love affair with Danielle Flinders, a ‘biomathematician’ working in the field of oceanography.” —Publishers Weekly (Best New Books, Week of March 25, 2013)
“It’s no surprise that [Ledgard] offers not just an acute portrait of a man and a woman on the edge (or dangerously submerged) but an almost defiantly intensive novel of ideas. . . . Highly recommended for thinking readers.” —Library Journal
“Offering myriad pleasures in its prose . . .[Submergence is] beautiful, and extraordinary. An ambitious work that will provoke strong reactions.” —Booklist
“[Submergence] is a tangle of rich imagery, philosophical nuggets and factual anecdotes…enough brutal and beautiful moments to make this book absorbing.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[L]aceratingly beautiful.” —Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“[A] ‘must read.’ . . . Submergence masks a mind-expanding exploration of science, philosophy and history behind a story which is at once a spy thriller and a passionate romance.” —Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Daily Circuit”
“[T]he best novel I’ve read so far this year. . . . 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 a platform to finish them . . . strange, intelligent, gorgeously written . . . Submergence is a dark book, but in such an unusual sense: Ledgard turns out the lights, and everything, inside and out, begins to glow.” —Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine
“[M]ore than the story of the ocean world and more than a story of love. Submergence is a meditation on nature and so, too, a contemplation of death.” —The Philadelphia Review of Books
“[Submergence is] not only a fierce and tender love story between two people caught in two very different worlds, but also a book that, chapter by chapter, taught me something about the world. It’s also a technical achievement, with some of the finest prose I have read in a long time.” —BookPage
“In Submergence, Ledgard sets individual lives next to the huge realities of nature, balances human self-importance against planetary fragility.” —Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”
“Though the mood of J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence is meditative, the threat of violence—both manmade and in the natural world—looms heavily. . . . Ledgard is less interested in the thriller-esque aspects of the book, and more in their philosophical implications.” —Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“Submergence is a brilliant book. It is knowledgeable not only about East Africa and oceanography, but also religion and literature. But fundamentally the book seemed to me about the necessity of recognizing our ignorance.” —Little Brown Mushroom
“This stunningly written book . . . is also a beautiful and deeply intelligent page-turner.” —Guernica, “Editor’s Picks: Heat Wave Reads”
“This is a beautiful and heart-rending story, full of images, feelings, facts, and history . . . [Y]ou will be changed after reading this book.” —Killer Nashville
“Ledgard’s novel is an erudite exploration of going down in space—not only into the water depths of the unknown but also into equally fraught human relationships on land and man’s longing and capacity for sustaining love. . . . a rare work of beauty in the face of such a risk and terror.” —Counterpunch
“My faith in fiction as an art always gets revived when I’m reading a book that I can’t stay away from and whose author’s skill I look upon in awe (and some fear). . . . Submergence by J.M. Ledgard is one such book. . . . A suspenseful, thoroughly enjoyable read.” —Petite Punch
“[T]he prose is gorgeous: both thick and gossamer in the same breath. That author Ledgard can make highly scientific and deeply anthropological themes both heavy and poetic at the same time is thrilling. . . . In the end, Submergence may be one of the most unsettling books you will read in a long while.” —LitStack
“Combining meditative beauty with brutal geopolitics, Ledgard’s extraordinary novel balances us between compassion and violence, tranquility and fear, possibility and destruction. We stare down the barrel of a gun, we feel the pressure build as we descend to the greatest depths, and we trust the touch of someone who was until very recently a total stranger. Submergence is a breathtaking vision of life stretched between its extremes. We are immersed, and we feel the weight of the world all around us.” —Elliott Bay Book Company newsletter
“Submergence is a wondrous book – arrestingly original, inventive, expansive, vivid, and thought-provoking. Through the tautly twined stories of a British spy captured by jihadis in Somalia and a Franco-Australian marine biologist captivated by the ocean’s deepest reaches, J.M. Ledgard plunges into a passionate contemplation of what it means to survive – for individuals, for cultures, for our species and for our planet – in these times.” —Philip Gourevitch
“Submergence is a masterly evocation of the intricacy of life, human and otherwise, but also of pain, pleasure, and the unknown depths. A strange and beguiling novel. The reader is pulled along by the undertow of Ledgardʼs intelligence.” —Teju Cole
“I’ve often dreamt of doing a work of art that resembles the experience of standing at the bottom of an empty swimming pool and physically feeling the presence of the absent water. Being inside the pool and imagining the water on your body is subtly different from thinking about the water while standing next to the pool. This difference, felt in all our senses, tells us something about how we see the world in ways that we often find hard to describe. Reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence is just like that. Spaces, colors, and images become tangible, and our senses explicit. We read with our body, not just with our eyes; we physically walk through emerging spaces.” —Olafur Eliasson
“Submergence is a great achievement. Moving, disturbing and hauntingly memorable.” —Norman Foster
Included in Barbara Hoffert’s 2013 Summer Reading Picks
It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the
year 2012. There was a hole in the wall where the water pipe was
meant to come in and the floor sloped away to a drain where the suds
were meant to flow from a shower along a trench to the dirt outside.
In some future time, the shower might be fitted. In some future time,
it might become an incidental place. But it was not so for him. For
him, it was a very dark and specific place.
He kept to the corners of the room where the noxious smells and
creatures did not so often reach. The floor was sandy concrete. It broke
apart when he scratched it. He urinated and shat wetly into a pit that
was covered with a piece of cardboard. He tried to be careful, but the
cardboard became smeared and spattered, thick with flies and beetles.
The trench dominated the room. He pushed it away. Still, it took
control of him. The shallow slope, so shallow, yet running away
towards the light . . .
He saw himself shot through the head, falling, one foot kicking away
the cardboard, opening the pit, legs dangling over the defile, his chest
and head on the trench, his blood flowing down it, congealing along
the length of it.
It was Stygian and the world outside was fire. He thought that
Kismayo had spun too close to the sun. The water pipe hole blazed in
his mind. He slipped one arm through the drain hole and held it
there until the skin burned and then did the same with the other arm.
His captors put food into the room every morning. Sometimes it touched
the marks on the cardboard. He opened up a fruit with his thumb. In
the centre of it was a grey pulp of eggs. He carried it to the drain hole
and saw a maggot pushing out through the eggs. It crawled onto his
index finger. It was white, with a black snout. It made him think of
the white-and-black-chequered headscarves of the fighters. He lifted it
to his mouth and ate it.
His sense of imprisonment was violent in the mornings. He could hear
the Indian Ocean close by and the sound of it made him think of the
holidays and work trips he had taken on the Kenyan coast, waking in
an old-fashioned hotel with chipped toilet basins and dripping air conditioning
units; swimming lengths of butterfly in a long warm pool
until his arms could no longer pass over his shoulders, running the
hotel beach past limbering beach boys all the way to the rocks, floating
in the shallows there, then walking slowly back to the hotel, luxuriating
in the still air that comes in the tropics at dawn, when there is not a
breath of wind to stir the palm fronds and the terns hover in place.
He sat in his corner and relived the icy showers that had followed, how
he had taken a pressed linen shirt from the wardrobe, paid the bell
captain in shilling coins for the Daily Nation and Standard newspapers,
and sat down on the veranda to a breakfast of papaya and scrambled
eggs, toast and Kenyan tea.
He sweated through the t-shirt they had given him. It said ‘Biggie Burgers’
and sagged with his dampness and grease and dirt. He scratched at the
floor, made shapes in it, narratives, and then scored his own body.
One night a rat ran up the trench from the drain hole. It heard him
breathing in the corner and stopped. It gleamed on the cardboard and
took tiny breaths of its own and ran back out into the world.
On another night the moon came through the water pipe hole – a
silver ray – and he clearly remembered laying himself down to sleep
in a winter forest so clean and crystalline and uninterrupted. It was a
British Army exercise in Finnmark. He looked up through the branches
of a spruce and saw the moon. The snow creaked under him. He was
persuaded that he could taper away again with the spruce and he
thought if only there were a wind in the room the tree might bend and
shed some of its snow.
When there was no moon he was sunk in the blackness Danny saw
when she explored the abyssal deep. On those nights he stood himself
up against the dark, one hand resting on a wall, and masturbated. He
did not think of her in those minutes. He tried to do it in a way that
was mechanical, focused only on touch, without face or body, silent,
odourless. He wanted to pollute the room.
The essence of it is that there is another world in our world, but we
have to live in this one until the latter fire heats the deep.
Of all the unlit rooms, the Kaaba in Mecca is the one that makes you
think most carefully about the air inside of it. The structure is 13 metres
high, and 11 by 13 metres along its sides: Kaaba, caaba, meaning a
cube. It predates Islam. According to tradition, Abraham built it
following the cardinal points of the compass. Inset in one corner is the
black stone, al-Hajar-ul-Aswad, which every pilgrim yearns to kiss on
his counter-clockwise way around the shrine. Its interior walls are
inscribed with Koranic verses and washed with perfumes. Pagan idols
stood in it for hundreds or possibly thousands of years, one idol for
each day of the year, some with gentle faces, others not, but all of them
smashed in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
The true value of gold is that it so densely occupies space. It is the opposite
of the emptiness inside the Kaaba, towards which all Muslims direct
their prayers, which quite possibly resonates more than any other point
on the planet.
The black stone is beyond such analysis. It was broken into pieces and
worn down by kisses long ago, and is held together by a silver frame
and silver wire. It is by acclamation the most precious object in the world,
but it is not heavy. Analysis shows it to be desert sand melted when a
meteor struck the Empty Quarter in ancient times. It is inscribed with iron
and nickel and star matter and within it are yellowish and whitish hollows
which save it from ever sinking. Muslims believe it was white when Allah
delivered it to Adam and Eve and has since been sullied by sin. Also that
it was lost in Noah’s flood and was found floating on the waters.
Under the floor of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where the Kaaba
stands, is a honeycomb of lava caves. It was into those caves that the
religious radicals who seized the Grand Mosque in 1979 retreated.
These men were convinced that the Mahdi had come to rule the last
days of the world. They were fighting for him.
The caves are deep in places, with, on the walls, films of the microbial
life we shall arrive at. The Mahdis put up a determined fight, broken
only when the Saudi government converted French commandos to Islam.
These Frenchmen oversaw the pumping of poison gas grenades, gunfire
and flares into the caves. The Mahdi women hidden directly below the
floor of the Kaaba cut the faces off their men to confound identification.
Many of the Mahdis fought to the death. Those who surrendered were
secretly tried and publicly beheaded in four different Saudi cities.
Being in the dark, in the heat, being so often sick, bitten by insects and
rodents, with visitations of light, made his mind unsteady. There was an
uncertainty in him which held that the executions by axe in Tudor England
and the executions with curved swords in Saudi Arabia and with a dagger
in the face in Somalia resembled one another and that the blood spilled by
each of them was commingled.
It was a solitary confinement. He spoke Arabic, but had no interpreter
for Somali. They had not allowed him a phone call. There was
no talk of a ransom. His captors were nothing like the pirate gangs in
Haradheere and Hobyo or the Taliban factions he had worked with
and against in Afghanistan who would sell any captive for money.
He ran on the spot. He performed headstands. He made a list of
the books he would load onto his electronic tablet when he was freed.
His name was James More and he was a descendant of Thomas More
and he supposed he would read Utopia again. He put together all that
he had learned or surmised about the group holding him, with the goal
of delivering it in person at a debriefing at the Secret Intelligence
Service building in London. Legoland. In this work his mind was
not at all troubled. He memorised the faces of the fighters who were
not Somalis, their skills and the Arabic they spoke, one to the other.
In some hostages the memory of their life before goes away, or else
there is a sense of suspension, as there is during a severe hospitalisation.
For him, it was as if some faces were safer than others, and some
memories more important. Many intimate details he could not dwell
on, yet others were insistent. His subconscious was trying to make
sense of a whole that was turning and guttering and shedding itself
like a planet in its infancy. There were passages of thought about
things he had never paid attention to, such as companies who used to
advertise widely and had since disappeared. What had happened
to Agfa, for example?
He wondered why was it that street kiosks in Africa had not created
their own product lines. Why could you not buy a compliment from
a vendor in a slum the way you bought a stick of gum or a cigarette?
The smallest coin might buy a folded piece of paper with a
handwritten note: you are gentle, you are gorgeous, or, your future
achievements will overshadow your past achievements.
At other times, he set his mind the task of playing back the sound
and images it had stored. It helped to be patient. He put himself again
in the winter forest, breathed out, and looked up. Snowflakes drifted
down. Slowly, music came to him. Pop, punk, fragments of symphonies
and jazz sessions. Finally, there were films and television shows, sports
events; a match point, a rugby try. He became his own multimedia
player, although there was nothing automated about it; it was biological,
twitchings in red mud, with stanzas missing; moving pictures were
fragile, they flickered, and then were gone.
The sunbeam from the water pipe hole moved across the wall during
the day. He followed it. He could see it strike the wall only if he turned
to face it. If he did that, he could not see it coming in. It bothered
him. Every human being faced forwards. Walked forwards. Ran
forwards. Looked out through socketed eyes. Time ran forwards. One
day added to another. Addition and subtraction. Danny said that
subtraction was the least part of mathematics because it was the taking
away of what was. He banged the back of his head against the wall.
Just hair. Skin on bone. He averted his eyes from the mosquitoes dancing
in the light. He adjusted the cardboard. He said to himself, because of
charity and love you should never allow death to rule your thoughts.
He crouched in a corner and came to terms with the volume of the
room. Before, he had seen every room by the furniture and decorations
in it, and by the light coming in through the windows or from electric
bulbs. There, hollowness gaped all around. The air was fouled, oily,
beaded; he was sunk to the bottom, on a floor of excrement, and the
ceiling was the underside of the surface of a strange sea.