12 October 2017

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

I decided I wanted to order this book when I was reading all the latest news section on thefilmstage.com... It said it would star Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy, and that Vikander would play a biomathematician focusing in oceanography. I think anyone who has spoken to me for 5 minutes knows that my greatest regret is not studying marine biology in my undergrad, so safe to say I was sold. I also thought the cover art was incredibly beautiful, so another plus!

We were very lucky in that we got to see Submergence at this year's TIFF. As usual, I always prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, so I quickly finished J. M. Ledgard's book the week before TIFF. It's a short read, only 208 pages.

The book goes back and forth between Danny (Vikander) and James' (McAvoy) first meeting, and where their careers took them months later. Danny is a mathematician studying the Atlantic ocean and is about to board a submersible to study the deepest caves of the sea. James works for a British counterintelligence agency and ends up abducted in Somalia. He never reveals his true work to Danny, and his captors are also under the impression that he works as an engineer and was sent to Africa to help develop a water treatment plan.

I love how Ledgard writes about the ocean in this book... I know it sounds cliche and lame, but being from the east coast I'm so lucky to be surrounded by the ocean at all times:

'We exist only as a film on the water,' she said. 'Of course, this goes against the religion of the Garden of Eden and the canon of political documents ending with the international law of the sea, which promote the primacy of man on the planet. Just take a look at it,' she said, running the pencil again over the lines and curves. 'We're nature's brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.'"

What really drew me to Danny as a character was definitely her brilliance. Every two days Meg and I become obsessed with something... whether that be OJ Simpson, the Walkerton Water Scandal, or in my case, marine biology, we LOVE to imagine ourselves as the leading expert on it. Danny talks about her research in a way I wish I had the chance to:

'I have a French view of science,' she said. 'Very romantic. Don't get me wrong. I am sensible. It's just that I have to stop myself from falling for comments, like 'exploration is a hunt whose prey is discovery.'"

a submersible similar to what they use in the film

The movie adaption has a billion beautiful shots of the ocean. This is because the two seem to also be connected by water... Danny is constantly surrounded by it, both by her geography but also her profession. A very difficult scene to watch also involves water: James is led out by his captors for a "mock execution," a form of psychological torture. They make him walk out into the ocean with his back turned to them, then they fire their gun in the air. James soils himself and then collapses into the water, relieved to be alive, but obviously distressed at what's just happened.

The Atlantic is the ocean most crossed and considered by man. It covers a fifth of the globe. The land bounding it is greater than the land bounding the Pacific. Even though the Amazon and the Congo and numerous lesser rivers pour freshwater into it, the Atlantic is saltier than the other oceans. Its average depth is 3,926 meters."

Obviously the most interesting aspects of the book isn't really the romance, it's how they both experience isolation in their own unique scenarios. James is held in a dark, damp cement cell... he's alone all day, everyday... whereas Danny will be headed where no human has really gone before - the deepest part of the ocean. Both of them spend these increasingly lonely moment reflecting on their time together.

I'm not an idiot, I would never claim being in a submersible is more isolating / frightening than being held captive my terrorists ... I would die a thousand deaths in a submersible rather than spend one day in captivity. BUT, there is this line from the book that they use verbatim in the movie which I love so, so, so much: "Remember why hell is down here and heaven is up above." Captivity is actually my worst nightmare, but the idea of being trapped in a pitch black submarine makes my stomach queasy.

Alicia Vikander as Danny and James McAvoy as James

The sections dealing with James are also very interesting for their own reasons though. He is constantly trying to "stay sane" while the weeks pass in his cell. It really reminded me of this graphic novel I want to read about a volunteer from Doctors Without Borders who was abducted in Russia and held in captivity for ~a year... he says one of the ways he tried to keep his psychological state intact was my going over historical battles in his head. Imagining them in great detail and how they played out. I thought this was such a fascinating coping strategy .. and reading Submergence definitely makes you think how you would fare.

James had no such ladder. He wished for a spermaceti candle, even if it would also show the insects, the cardboard, and the trench. He was desperate for something far away. A hare. Some color in the sky."

Another comparison Ledgard makes to Danny and James is how darkness is such a dominant force in their situation. Danny and her small crew are without any natural light, and have no hopes of getting any from their position in the deep sea. James is trapped in a windowless, lightless cell, and he is constantly reflecting on the dark. He talks about this in a paragraph that is way too long for me to quote in full ... essentially he talks about the lore surrounding his great, great grandfather, a sea captain who was "a living Jonah." His forebear was swallowed by a whale:

It was only when the whale's stomach was hoisted above the deck that one of the flensers saw it pulse. They cut it open and found John wide-eyed and coughing in the gastric juices. The whale had swallowed him. There was mucus over his body and hands. One of his feet was partly digested where the stocking had come off. He was otherwise physically unharmed. He went mad for a week and suffered claustrophobia. He would not sleep in his cabin, but instead laid himself down on the deck. His eyes would not focus. He repeated in his speech a groaning about the celerity of the whale in rising and its rows of white teeth. When the fog closed over the Silver Star he took his blankets and sealskins and climbed the mast. The madness burned off him with the sun."

I love this passage because it is so true ... our "madness burning off with the sun." How darkness is so terrifying to so many people.

a scene from the movie adaptation

As for what I thought about the movie adaptation ... I thought it was really well done! I would never say the book is way better, they are both worth enjoying. I think one of Vikander's strengths as an actress is that she can form powerful onscreen chemistry with any of her male costars, and this is clear in Submergence. The scenery was beautiful and they kept true to the source material. What else is important in an adaptation???

Meg and I were also obsessed with Vikander's character because she constantly wears giant cable knit sweaters, rain coats and Uggs - our ideal outfit. She also wears her eyeglasses on a string around her neck ... a trend we are thinking of jumping on board with. Her character has also motivated me to want to start working out to incredibly loud classical music.

I'll leave you with one more incredibly beautiful passage that has to do with marine life... Meg and I have been obsessed with the "loneliest whale in the world"... the whale that produces an abnormal sound that prevents him from communicating and travelling with his fellow species. It is incredibly fascinating, but it also makes me want to sleep for three days straight. Danny talks about the curvier whale ... a whale seven meters long that lives into its 80s ... they are the deepest diving creatures in the world as they can stay underwater for an hour at two thousand meters deep. She says this of them:

I think I first started to think of this when my colleagues began to study the decompression the Curvier's suffered when they came up for air, they came up and it was as if they had left the world and the coming back to it was violent. They stay motionless at the surface and we still don't know whether it is the pain of the bends, the osteonecrosis fizzing in their bones, or that they are blinded by the light.'"

If the passages I shared above give you goosebumps then please read this book. You won't be disappointed.

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