Reviewed by Hannah Charlton in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Twenty years after a nuclear explosion has killed a quarter of the country’s population, a sonar operator, whose parents survived the attack, is on submarine duty in the depths of the ocean and is messaging his future partner – whom he has yet to meet – as he tries to explain himself to her and make sense of a chain of unthinkable events. The country is never specified, the narrator has no name, neither does his partner: we are in a territory of the possible and this scenario could happen anywhere.
This is futuristic fiction, dealing with a world where nuclear war and its aftermath is the reality but where the potential attacks of tomorrow are even more deadly and frightening – enough to wipe out the entire human race. Norlin sets the novel within the claustrophobically confined space of a submarine, supposedly out on a mission but with no clear orders or goal.
Norlin’s novel is the opposite of a fast-paced Jack Reacher-style nuclear thriller. It is a poignant, poetic, even melancholy account of an introspective, isolated individual reaching out to another in a world gone mad,attempting to establish some form of intimacy.The two have been selected and paired – at a genetic level – to survive the next attack and supposedly ensure the continuity of the human race. In between his shifts of listening to the spectrum of ocean sounds on the radar screen and identifying any potential threats, he pours out his innermost thoughts to her, describing the fateful events on board the submarine as well as his own past and present. Norlin does this in a series of short emails, all from the protagonist, which build a picture of a ruined and toxic future. This might sound even bleaker than Cormac McCarthy’s novel and film The Road, about a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic landscape, but the book is in fact transformed by the submariner’s desire to build emotional trust and closeness. Post-nuclear novels such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Stephen King’s The Stand and William R. Forstchen’s One Second After focus on survival and social breakdown. Norlin chooses instead to probe into his character’s emotional state within the context of a terrifying new world: through the mind of one individual he skilfully paints a picture of total uncertainty, where a lack of leadership and information is combined with constant threats and dangers.Boats have disappeared mysteriously, diving suits are leaky, and the inexperienced crew are literally out of their depth when, to escape a strange noise, they sink down to a level where the water pressure threatens the structure of the hull.
Just as films such as Donnie Darko, Fight Club and Shutter Island play with the notion that the central character – whose perspective is the only one we are given – may be fantasising at a deep pathological level, so this book offers us a vision of an individual yearning for love and clutching at the lifeline offered by contact with the woman who is only real for him through her photograph and her emails. Does she really exist or is she a way for him to imagine that he is in fact in the real world? It is a powerful and haunting first novel.