cover image Submergence


J.M. Ledgard. Coffee House (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (218p) ISBN 978-1-56689-319-0

This beautifully written novel, the second from Ledgard (after Giraffe), a correspondent for the Economist based in Africa, 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. The affair is related as a series of flashbacks from a recent vacation in France. The book is told in short, episodic chapters that probably reflect the journalistic sensibilities of the author, who not only captures the enormous barbarity of More’s al-Qaeda captors but also manages to convey some of their innate humanity. But there is no sentimentalizing of the evils of the jihadists, “empowered by the prospect of martyrdom” and comforted by a “medieval” fatalism. (In one horrifying scene, a young girl in Kismayo, Somalia, is gang-raped—then “convicted” of adultery by the local Muslim cleric and sentenced to death by stoning.) Danielle’s milieu, the deep ocean (which “challenges our sense of who we are and where we came from”), offers a contrast to the gruesome and misguided efforts of Islamic fundamentalism. The book is exciting in the way of a thriller, though Ledgard seems uninterested in maintaining or even developing that sense of suspense. 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. This may be more of a novel of ideas than a novel full stop, but it is profoundly readable and unfailingly interesting. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Apr.)