The second novel by British author and political journalist Ledgard (Giraffe, 2006) is a tangle of rich imagery, philosophical nuggets and factual anecdotes. And yes, there is also a plot, but one that the book abandons and rejoins at will.
Much of the action takes place within the mind of James More, a British spy posing as a water inspector in Somalia, who’s been caught and imprisoned by jihadists. In his memory, More relives his previous Christmas in a French hotel, where he had a brief and intense love affair with Danielle Flinders, a brilliant marine biologist. As the two characters head for very different destinies, the narrative heads off on tangents whose relation to the main story isn’t always immediately clear. James is a descendant of Utopia author Thomas More, which apparently makes him prone to philosophical thought; and Danielle has her own questions about the nature of religion and society. Shortly after the two lovers meet, she explains her fascination with the complexity of undersea life and concludes that human society is merely “a film on the water…nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness.” This less-than-hopeful worldview is borne out by a later scene that describes, in concise journalistic style, the stoning of a young girl. Though it covers only two pages and involves neither of the main characters, it’s a powerful sequence that underlines the existential anger at the book’s core.
While the nonlinear structure is initially frustrating, there are enough brutal and beautiful moments to make this book absorbing.