Marine biologist's lyrical debut novel 'She Down There' is well worth a read

15 April 2020 - 12:52 By Margaret von Klemperer
Burger's passion for the sea and the creatures that live in it is tangible in this marine biologist's debut novel.
Burger's passion for the sea and the creatures that live in it is tangible in this marine biologist's debut novel.
Image: Supplied

Published in the Witness (14/04/2020)

Lynton Burger is a marine biologist, and his passion for the sea and the creatures that live in it is at the heart of She Down There, his first novel. When writing about the sea, his prose has a lyrical quality that is very attractive.

The human part of the story concerns two people, and begins in the 1980s and 1990s. First we meet Claire, whose father was a French Canadian, and her mother a member of the indigenous Haida people, whose myths include that of the Half-Away Woman who lives in the depths of the ocean and absorbs its triumphs and disasters. After a tragedy in her life, Claire heads to Mozambique to a research station monitoring the coral reefs.

The other strand deals with Klaas Afrikaner, who grows up on a farm in the Karoo, where his father is a labourer. The farmer’s family is liberal, and Klaas is allowed to associate with their daughter, Gwen, despite this being in the apartheid days. The two are very close, and when she goes off to university – and becomes involved in the clandestine ANC – her father manages to get Klaas accepted into the navy where he becomes an elite diver, despite being a so-called Coloured.

Sent on a covert mission to Maputo, Klaas decides enough is enough. Eventually, he becomes a dive master shepherding wealthy tourists around. It takes a long time for Klaas and Claire to meet, but the reader is in no doubt that they will. And it is in their relationship – and indeed, in most of the human relationships – that Burger’s writing falters. There is something a bit Mills and Boonish about it all, and everything is signalled with a heavy hand. When Gwen reappears on the idyllic Mozambican coast, her bracelets jangle, her breath smells of cigarettes and she leaves lipstick marks on whatever she is drinking out of. All too obviously, she is no longer a Good Thing.

It’s a pity, because when he is writing about the sea, or the horrors of the Chinese greed for its bounty, Burger shows real talent. And despite its flaws, She Down There is still very readable.