Where Angels Fear to Tread – ‘Submergence’ by JM Ledgard

I’m in two minds about ‘Submergence’. It is rich in imagery and ideas, and filled with sumptuous description, but I found it frustratingly incoherent. Broken up into small sections, some only a paragraph long, it ruminates on love, faith and existence. It marries science and philosophy, terrorism and exploration, but I found there was little to drive me to read on. Each section was interesting in isolation, but if I’d lost the book halfway through I would not have felt a desperate need to find out what happened to the novel’s two protagonists.

The two central characters are spy and scientist. They meet in a French hotel, and are instantly attracted. Forced by circumstance they go their separate ways. One will be captured by terrorists, the other will travel into the depths of the ocean.

The narrative timeline is all over the place. Danny’s (female scientist) is more or less linear but James’s moves back in forth in time. The novel opens with his being held hostage, before returning to the two meeting in France. As James’ captivity lengthens, his thoughts and recollections become more erratic and philosophical, which adds to the lack of coherence.

The descriptions though are incredible, and the thoughts and emotions portrayed intense. The sections set in the French hotel are so evocative, you can see the rooms, taste the food, and feel the cold. So real and wonderful did this hotel seem, I searched for it on the Internet. Sadly, I’m not sure it exists.

The two stories on the surface have little in common. One is about exploration and the excitement of discovery, the other a horrible tale of abuse and mistreatment. Yet Ledgard teases out similarities. Somalia is in the fertile crescent, the ocean bed contains the building blocks for life. Both places could be considered as the cradle of civilisation, which in turn lead Danny and James to ruminate on the existence of God.

Both characters find themselves in environments devoid of light, literal or figurative. These dark places, where angels fear to tread, are given further texture by references to early Utopian fiction. The layering of themes and ideas in this book is very impressive.  James’ predicament highlights that there are many unexplored forgotten backwaters, even on dry land. Hell does not have to be submerged, it can be a place on Earth.

Submergence examines humankind’s need to explore, but how it is in our nature to look upwards to the heavens. Exploration beneath the sea is not glamourous nor heralded by mankind, despite it being as hostile as outer space. The benefits of exploring the deep may far outweigh travelling to Mars, but Danny’s underwater exploration fails to capture the public’s imagination.

The more I consider ‘Submergence’ the more I appreciate its hidden depths. Despite its brevity, it is a multilayered and textured read, the meaning of which goes well beyond simple words on a page. I imagine it would make an interesting book group choice as there are many themes and ambiguities to discuss. Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, the lack of coherence making it hard to retain interest, ‘Submeregnce’ is a powerful novel about the state of the world and the importance of hope. I am glad I persevered.


2 thoughts on “Where Angels Fear to Tread – ‘Submergence’ by JM Ledgard

  1. This wouldn’t normally be my sort of thing at all, but I’ve added it to my wishlist after reading this. I love stories about exploration and distant spaces, and that would include oceans, so I may well give it a go and hope I can get through the terrorist half… Always enjoy your reviews.

    1. Thank you. I started the review thinking I hadn’t enjoyed the book, but as I wrote, I realised more and more that I liked it. Its joys aren’t immediate, but it is well worth picking up.

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