Reviewed by Terri-Jane Dow
Our book club pick for November, The Divers’ Game was an unusual pick – it’s not a debut (indeed, it’s Jesse Ball’s eighth novel in ten years), it’s not written by a woman, and it’s very newly released (having been published by Granta at just the beginning of October). So, what was it about this book that made it a choice? In short, it’s utterly fantastic.
The Divers’ Game is a complete antidote to dystopia-fatigue. I’m a huge fan of dystopian novels, but they can feel repetitive, especially when real life is seeming to come so close. It has been a long time since I read a dystopia that felt truly original, that didn’t name drop The Handmaids Tale, that didn’t feel… lazy. The Divers’ Game moves too fast for laziness. It’s split into four parts, giving different perspectives within a new kind of society. That new society is largely based on a savage violence, and the new traditions that go with it. It’s a society segregated into two; pats and quads. The ruling pats are armed with gas canisters and masks, for their own protection, while the quads are branded and mutilated, to make them immediately distinguishable. The unarmed quads live in guarded areas, where they generally stay, as outside of them, the gas can be unleashed on them for any (or no) reason. The quads have festival days of their own – most importantly the Day of the Infanta – to keep them placated.
Ball’s main characters for three of the four parts are children, which gives both a naïveté and an extra level of horror to the situations they are put in. At school, every pat child is given a gas canister – each filled with a different death, marked out by colour (“the yellow killing gas, the green incapacitating gas, the red gas that confuses, the brown gas that sickens“) – and they choose them based on how co-ordinated their outfits will be. They watch videos of refugees and criminals undergoing “the thumb-taking procedure” without flinching. On the Day of the Infanta, given the power to do whatever she likes and to have others do whatever she likes, its young central figure struggles with the weight and responsibility of her role. She is the adjudicator for her entire quad, paraded around to pass judgement by waving a white or a red sleeve, with no real knowledge of what her judgement will entail. If her baying audience approve, a replica of the girl will be thrown into the crowds, piñata-like. If they are unhappy, the girl herself will be thrown down to them.
In a move away from the unending savagery of the first two sections, the third is a quieter cruelty. A group of children are playing the titular Divers’ Game. They must dive down in one lake to find the tunnel through to another. It’s difficult, and many cannot hold their breath for long enough, though they are happy to tease others who cannot. Most who have managed the feat have only done it once; the badge does not wear off with time.
The final section of the novel switches to an adult narrator; someone who finally seems to understand the consequences of her actions, and of the actions of the society she lives in as a whole. It’s a recognition of hope, but only for a moment.
The beauty of Ball’s writing stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of what he’s actually describing; a society where the normalisation of such horror is accepted by its youngest members. There’s little hope here, and facts are presented plainly, without embellishment. In jittering sections which cut away before providing a true ending, Ball demonstrates how little it takes for kindness and empathy to be completely lost.
Terri-Jane Dow is the editor of Severine, and a writer based in London. You can find her on instagram @terri_jane