Zeh, Juli - 'Decompression' (translated by John Cullen)
DECOMPRESSION is the fourth novel by German writer Juli Zeh to be translated into English. This book is a stylish thriller set in Lanzarote, featuring a love triangle told from the point of view of hapless Sven, a thirty-something diving coach; Sven is a German who fled the rat race and a potentially promising legal career to come to Lanzarote to set up a diving school. He more or less tolerates his live-in girlfriend, the capable and attractive Antje, who handles the admin and less exciting chores for the diving school clients. When the rather glamorous German couple Jola, a beautiful soap star from a privileged background, and Theo, a middle aged enfant terrible of the literary scene hire Sven's exclusive services for a week to include diving, accommodation and general chauffeuring around, Sven proves to be rather vulnerable to Jola's charms.
Sven soon starts obsessively googling Jola and watching episodes of her soap in his study at night. By day Sven has to deal with the dysfunctional relationship between Jola and Theo, as he attempts to take them on challenging dives, as the couple bait each other with dangerous pranks that tip over into physical violence. Jola starts to keep her own diary of the stay in Lanzarote (the reader sees daily extracts from her diary), and her recollection of events starts to differ more and more significantly from Sven's as the novel progresses. Jola depicts herself as a cowed victim of Theo, who is severely abusive towards her. By contrast she depicts Sven as besotted with her and keen to rescue her from Theo, and herself as a naturally talented diver.
Meanwhile Theo becomes increasing hostile to Sven, whilst initially being relatively happy to indulge his obvious crush on Jola, becoming aggressive to Sven for his hypocrisy, and happy to badmouth Jola for what he deems her attention-seeking and unstable behaviour. As the holiday and diving lessons progress, Jola and Sven's budding affair becomes public knowledge. Tension inevitably mounts between the couples, until the love triangle comes to an abrupt conclusion centring on Sven's fortieth birthday present to himself, a dive deep down to the underwater remains of a ship.
Sven's experiences with Jola and Theo prove to be a rather painful and belated growing-up process for him. But it is hard to feel much sympathy for Sven being drawn into their dysfunctional relationship, as he appears somewhat unlikable and selfish, behaving like an overgrown adolescent at times. He is consistently casually cruel to Antje, and takes a teenage attitude to the German bourgeois life he left behind which he deems "the war zone". The most sympathetic character of the two couples, by a country mile, is Antje, the neglected girlfriend, attractive, capable and sociable. DECOMPRESSED is a genuinely gripping and well written psychological thriller with a neat twist in the tale at the end. Given the device of competing versions of events given by almost equally unsympathetic characters, DECOMPRESSED inevitably reminded me of GONE GIRL, albeit with a more stylish and holiday beach-read flavour. Overall this is a highly enjoyable book, from a versatile author, and I look forward to reading further works by her.
Laura Root, England