Debut nonfiction account with all the ingredients for a rip-roaring guy’s adventure yarn: deep-sea diving, big money, avarice, the allure of medieval Oriental history.
In the mid-1400s, a ship stocked with valuable Vietnamese ceramics sank into the South China Sea. Half a millennium later, an ingenious maritime archaeologist and a sharp-eyed Malaysian businessman figured out a way to recover the underwater treasure. The star of this tale is Oxford don Mensun Bound, host of Discovery TV’s Lost Ships series. Maritime excavation is expensive, so Bound was delighted by the financial backing of Ong Soo Hin, whose interest, of course, was in eventually selling a portion of the recovered ceramics. (The ethical ambiguities of exporting antiquities to other countries shadow this story.) The author, who worked with Bound on this and numerous other projects, here comes off as knowledgeable and ardent, but not self-indulgent. The dive itself was historic, the deepest archaeological excavation anyone had ever undertaken. (It was also one of the most staggeringly expensive.) A particularly funny scene shows Bound explaining to a diving crew used to cruder salvage operations exactly what archaeological work entails: 12-hour shifts, in which the divers would have to be the archaeologists’ “fingers and eyes,” not only recovering as much material as possible but also noting where in the ship each piece came from. The text’s emotional energy comes from the clash between disinterested academic research and profit-driven commerce; midway through the trip, Bound and Ong Soo Hin found themselves at odds. Readers will find themselves whipping through the last 100 pages, eager to know how—or if—those tensions were resolved.
Has “make me a movie” written all over it.