Writer J.M. Ledgard's life rarely strays far from two elements: water and danger. In "Submergence," his new novel, they are always near.
A spy thriller mixed with romance, history, philosophy and environmental concerns, "Submergence" tells the stories of a British spy captured by Somali terrorists and a deep sea oceanographer about to dive to the bottom of the sea. Both characters drift back to their brief, passionate affair over Christmas at an exclusive French hotel.
A New York Magazine critic recently called it the best novel she has read all year. National publishing houses reportedly passed over the book. Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press did not, finding the material exactly to its liking.
"Submergence" holds a great deal in its 200-plus pages, said Coffee House Press Publisher Chris Fischbach.
Yes, "Submergence" is a novel. "But it sometimes feels like an essay," Fischbach said. "It sometimes feels like him talking. Love story, spy story, it's all of these things that work together, as a kind of mesh of both art and ideas in a way that feels really fresh and really engages and respects the reader."
This all makes a little more sense when you learn about Ledgard. Born and raised on the remote Shetland Islands far off the northern coast of the Scottish mainland, he grew up surrounded by the ocean. Then for more than a decade he has been the terrorism correspondent for "The Economist" magazine, most recently covering the conflicts in East Africa.
The job, he said, taught him a very spare kind of writing.
"When I started writing for The Economist my editor would just say "One adjective!" he laughed during a Skype interview from Switzerland. "You have one adjective a piece."
He spent time in Somalia, which he calls a lion-hearted place that will capture the heart of anyone lucky enough to visit.
He also spent time with jihadists like the men he describes in "Submergence."
"They are the bad guys," he said bluntly. "They may not know it themselves, but they really are. They are really brutal."
“If it haunts you somehow, I think that's what I really want to do as a writer.”J.M. Ledgard
Yet, even as he labored in Africa, he applied for a journalism fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Much to his surprise, he was accepted.
"For me to hang around with scientists, oceanographers, people who were researching jellyfish, and salp, and the deep ocean, this really was a revolutionary moment and really kind of reconstructed my perspective of the planet."
The vastness of the ocean, and how relatively little we know about it made him take a new look at everything around him. He set out to write a novel about the ocean, but couldn't shake the influences of his work covering terrorism.
"I can't really explain exactly how or why, but somehow these twin themes together," he said.
In "Submergence," Ledgard sets individual lives next to the huge realities of nature, balances human self-importance against planetary fragility. Even as oceanographer Danielle Flinders prepares for a voyage to the deepest part of the ocean, the spy James More stands before a firing squad in Somalia.
"A terminal illness at least gives you a chance to say goodbye to your family, friends and acquaintances," Ledgard writes in a chapter where More's mind races as he faces death. "A violent death is something else. It is a maelstrom. Its waters turn quickly. They spiral down, the sky is blotted out, and there is no time to make a phone call or take a bow."
The New York Times called it "a book obsessed with unexplored depths, whether of self, of world conflict or of the ocean."
Fischbach says the positive national reviews are extraordinarily valuable to a small press and mean it is likely to remain on the Coffeehouse backlist for some years.
Ledgard, who had enough material for a 700-page book but kept distilling the novel to its current size, has simpler hopes for "Submergence."
"If it haunts you somehow, I think that's what I really want to do as a writer," he said.
Ledgard continues to write for The Economist, but he has a new job too, as director of the Future Africa lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
There he's searching for the best technologies for African development - and working on a new novel, too.