Simon & Schuster (simonandschuster.co.uk)
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Virginie and her husband Jake have packed in the rat race and spent their savings on a small yacht. Flying to Malaysia to take ownership of their new home/transport, their plan is to head to Thailand and see where things take them from there. Until Terry, an old loner who likes to talk, tells them about the small island of Amarante. It’s a slice of paradise that sounds too good to ignore, so they change their plans and set sail. Two months later, they’re picked up by a Royal Malaysian Navy patrol, in a luxury yacht that isn’t theirs. Jake is badly injured, barely clinging on to life, while Virginie has quite a story to tell. Paradise may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
Deep Water, Emma Bamford’s debut novel, somewhat defies categorisation: it’s not really a crime novel; despite being extremely intense, it’s not really a thriller; and it’s not a travelogue. But it does have elements of all three genres and much more, which makes it a novel that’s difficult to put down once you’ve started it and, let’s be honest, there’s no better measure of how good a novel is than that, is there? The bulk of the story centres on Virginie and Jake and their ill-fated trip to Amarante, in search of paradise. Upon arrival they meet several others do have spent many summers here and who pass on the long-established set of “rules” which, while mostly common sense, immediately get Jake’s back up: they’re here to escape rules and the normality of everyday life. Shortly after they arrive, Vitor and Teresa – who they met briefly at their last stop – pull into Amarante’s secluded harbour. In a luxury yacht, and with a shady business to his name, Vitor is out of place here, though there’s something about him that Virginie likes…and that Jake doesn’t.
Bamford presents a masterclass in building tension as the story progresses. Told mainly from Virginie’s point of view, we watch as she and Jake integrate with the other people on the island and then as relations fracture. Virginie finds herself caught between Jake and the others, who feel he isn’t pulling his weight for the benefit of the community. Virginie becomes the ultimate in unreliable narrators, as much of what we know derives mainly from how she feels, so it’s difficult to know which side to be on or how biased her views are at any given time. Or, indeed, if we should be choosing sides at all. The setting is the quintessential paradise island: white beaches, shaded forest areas and, most importantly, only a handful of people from day to day. The island has a dark history that we discover along with Virginie, which taints the idea of paradise somewhat. When tragedy strikes – which it inevitably will – things happen fast. There’s really only one message here: hell is other people. The concept of paradise doesn’t hold up once humanity is involved.
The novel – Virginie’s story – is bookended by sections told – in the first person – from the point of view of the captain of the Royal Malaysian Navy ship that finds them floating aimlessly at sea. We know from the outset that this will end in disaster, but it’s still interesting to see how, and how quickly, the situation devolves. Much of this, we’re told in Bamford’s bio, is presented by the voice of experience, the author having packed in her life in England to live on a yacht in the tropics. This first-hand experience lends the narrative a sense of realism, and brings the island paradise, and life on the sea, to vibrant life for the reader.
Deep Water is a one-sitting read, so make sure you plan accordingly. It’s an intense and claustrophobic read whose grip tightens with every chapter. It’s an excellent first novel, which leaves the reader wondering how Bamford will follow it up. Perfect for a day on the beach or by the pool; just make sure you don’t stray too far from civilisation!