Juli Zeh’s powerful psychodrama combines the serene rapture of the underwater environment with the claustrophobic collapse of identity under pressure. It’s unpredictable, offbeat and edgy; unsettling and almost incidentally erotic. Zeh introduces a pair of snakes into paradise when a fractious couple come to learn scuba diving at an isolated holiday village in the Canary Islands, where outcasts from society seek refuge from modern life.
Self-centred Sven the diving instructor has held himself at a distance from everyone in his adult life. He’s abandoned a career in the law; shuns his homeland, sneers at his countrymen and barely commits the time of day to his long-term relationship with a woman who has loved him since she was a child.
Enter Jola, a physically compelling but emotionally insecure magnetic young actress, whose sexual manipulations and emotional machinations destroy Sven’s defences and leave him frighteningly vulnerable. Jola wields her sexuality and her vulnerability as potent weapons, goading her partner Theo at one moment and seeking his support the next. They are like the couple from hell at a dinner party, constantly sniping at each other, and ensnaring any unwary bystanders in their escalating conflict. The violence threatens to tip from verbal to physical at any moment – and inevitably, blood will be spilled…
Zeh brilliantly sets all this discord against the deep blue background of the churning Atlantic ocean. Chaotic on the surface, it provides moments of tranquil rapture during the dives which adds to the disconcerting and destabilising effect of the narrative. The story is mainly told from Sven’s perspective – but then we’re shown an alternative interpretation of events as they unfold. We’re uncertain of which account represents reality, if indeed either version can be trusted. What is obvious is that not everyone will survive this encounter intact, and there’s bound to be more than emotional wreckage as the competing egos batter against each other.
Decompression features a cast of beautifully nuanced characters, as complicated and confusing as real people. There’s a real sense of vérité in the detail of their lives: Sven’s girlfriend who felt so guilty about the death of a pet dog that she tracked down an identical puppy and gave it the same name – or the sidelong, hostile glances that Sven endures from his island friends who disapprove of his entanglement with Jola.
The skilfully spun narrative encompasses a raft of underlying social observations – is it noble in some way to reject modern society and go live a more basic life? Or is that just running away from reality? And it’s far from clear who can be considered the abuser and the victim in this tangled situation: there’s provocation on both sides.
The writing in Decompression is sharp and precise, and almost every page contains an insightful observation or a turn of phrase to make the reader pause and admire – especially impressive as it’s translated from German. That translation is close to faultless; there’s maybe one or two moments in the entire book where a word feels out of place, but in the main it’s resoundingly consistent in maintaining the tense, troubling atmosphere which threatens to drown the dreams of the core characters.
The diving scenes are extremely credible too, from the technical detail of wearing all the kit and breathing different gases, to the vertiginous thrill of free-floating above an underwater abyss, freed from time, tide and moral responsibility.
Intelligent and absorbing, Decompression is easily Juli Zeh’s most accessible novel to date. It’s nothing like as weird as her earlier novel, Dark Matter (which I also adored), but still strays far from the path of the typical action-adventure crime-thriller.
This is deep water: be prepared to submerge yourself in its turbulent mind-set.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Decompression by Juli Zeh is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon