Juli Zeh’s Decompression is billed as a psychological thriller that is ‘claustrophobic, smart and unrelentingly intense’. Sven Fiedler and his younger girlfriend Antje run a diving instructional school in a remote part of Lanzarote. Sven has run away from judgmental German society and a promising career in law, and Antje has followed him like a loyal, if not necessarily faithful, hound.
The story begins with the arrival of their most recent customers – a German couple who have booked Sven’s exclusive services for their trip. Jola is a soap star who wants to learn to scuba dive to snag the lead role in a biopic about underwater photographer and model Lotte Hass; her partner Theo a controlling middle-aged novelist with writers block. The couple sleep apart, and are clearly having long term problems that the trip brings to the fore “It’s always this way: you travel thousands of miles to sleep less comfortably and to understand yourself better”. The action unfolds primarily from Sven’s viewpoint, with interspersed excerpts from Jola’s diary that give a very different version of events.
In diving, decompression is the gradual reduction of ambient pressure as a diver returns to the surface – a highly controlled process used to avoid ‘the bends’, the potentially fatal build-up of bubbles of dissolved gases in the body. The plot and pace of Decompression hinges around control (by parents, partners and society) and the consequences of the release of pressure, whether it is gradual or sudden. Theo is physically, sexually and emotionally dominant of Jola, who has some pretty serious daddy issues on the back burner. Sven may be superficially laid back, but the precision required to survive in his chosen underwater environment belies this. The chaos that Theo and Jola’s toxic relationship brings to his controlled and isolated world is one of the main builders of tension. The other is the increasing sexual dynamic between Sven and Jola. In Sven’s version this involves rebuffing her advances by day and obsessively masturbating over reruns of her soap at night; in Jola’s version this involves them being in a steamy affair and playing to run away together… but which version can we believe? In one version Theo is a decent enough guy who doesn’t deserve the provocative posturing of his volatile girlfriend, in the other Theo is an abusive controlling tyrant. As for Antje – well, this character is so short-changed I don’t even know why she’s in it, there is a cameo from a gecko in their apartment with more believable motivation.
I picked up this book based on reviews lauding it for its characterisation and slow-burning intensity, and am still left with the impression that I must have read a totally different book to them. It’s less a psychological thriller and more a study of jealousy and emotional abuse. The problem with writing about such topics in a detached way is that the reader becomes detached too. My opinion is, at best… meh. Spoilt rich people creating drama in a backdrop of privilege, narrated with cold detachment, is not what floats my boat. The characters might well all smother each other in different ways, but since I didn’t care about any of them I never felt claustrophobic and it didn’t really matter to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is 252 pages of time I won’t get back.