Author(s): Jesse Ball
From the inimitable mind of award-winning author Jesse Ball, a novel about an unsettlingly familiar society that has renounced the concept of equality--and the devastating consequences of unmitigated power. The old-fashioned struggle for fairness has finally been abandoned. It was a misguided endeavour. The world is divided into two groups, pats and quads. The pats may kill the quads as they like, and do. The quads have no recourse but to continue with their lives. The Divers' Gameis a thinly veiled description of our society, an extreme case that demonstrates a truth: we must change or our world will collapse. What is the effect of constant fear on a life, or on a culture? Brilliantly constructed and achingly tender, The Divers' Gameshatters the notion of common decency as the binding agent between individuals, forcing us to consider whether compassion is intrinsic to the human experience. With his signature empathy and ingenuity, Jesse Ball's latest work solidifies his reputation as one of contemporary fiction's most mesmerising talents.
Lethe and Lois burst off the page in the first part of Jesse Ball’s The Divers’ Game. Such frenetic energy can’t be contained. Lethe and Lois are Pads — school girls that are part of the community of privilege. They have no fears, carry gas masks with them and know the creed. One day their teacher, the depressive alcoholic Mandred, offers to take them to the zoo. The zoo is a fair distance from the city. On the train the girls, who are fast friends, sit close together with their intense and seemingly secret language of glances and touches. They feel inseparable. However, when they get to the zoo only one student can be the teacher’s assistant. Lois accompanies Mandred into the zoo of stuffed animals — in this world no creatures live, apart from a lone hare near the end of its life. What does the hare symbolise — a last hope? The final gasp of the old world? A world before Quads. Or the suffering of all living creatures? While Lois is entranced by the zoo, Lethe is left outside and left to her own devices. She lies on the grass in the park until it is dark and when her companions do not return, she decides to return to the city. On the train back she is startled by a man and gets off at an unknown station. In her panic, she finds herself at a large clearing on the edge of a Quad territory. In this world, there are two distinct groups, the Pads and the Quads — the Quads are the aliens, the refugees, allowed to stay, but disenfranchised, physically — branded on their checks and a thumb removed (replaced by a prosthetic) — and economically — they live in the worse neighbourhoods in caged communities — guarded by Pad security, and are the workers at the lowest end of society. At any time a Pad can end the life of a Quad if they feel under threat. A gas canister can be released for an immediate or painful or slow death. This is a world of black and white, unequal, full of tension and threat. The novel arches over a day or so. When Lethe and Lois are on the train they are contemplating the coming of Ogia’s Day — a ceremony that rarely occurs, a day in which all debts (financial and emotion) are wiped. There is high anticipation and the girls are discussing their outfits. In another part of the city the Quads are rehearsing for their own ceremony — a macabre parade with a young child — the Infanta — at its centre, a child jollied into deciding wrong-doers’ fate. Are they guilty? Wave the red-sleeved arm. Not guilty — let them go. We join the crowd and are swept forward in the horror.
Lethe flows like a river along her path — a journey which lands her on the outskirts of a group of Quads gathered around a bonfire. The young Infanta is borne along in a frenzy, unaware of the power of her position. As the reader, you know the inevitable is just around the corner. Will she be treated mercifully if the crowds are happy or thrown to the lions if not? Her papier-mache look-alike awaits. And then there are the children playing out the adult world of jealously and hierarchy through 'the divers' game' — a game which pushes contestants to their limits.
Jesse Ball’s writing, as in Census, is sparse and compelling, There is intrigue, confusion and pre-ordained destiny. You are up close, alongside the characters, but then suddenly pulled out to a god’s eye view — witnessing and looking around the corners to where Lethe, Lois and the other children can not see. The world feels dystopic and yet all too real — an allegory of crisis, prejudice and confusion, a world that feels out of control. The final section of the book, a letter from Mandred’s wife pulls, us out of this confusion and fear or hate. Her words, even in despair, are compassionate and remind us of what humanity can be.