Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

My husband and I got certified to scuba dive this past spring and I absolutely love it but I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that I didn't read this book before we took our classes. Holy toledo! The bends are a magnitude of 100 times worse than I ever imagined. But being underwater is phenomenal. I don't know that I'd ever want to do deep wreck diving; I'm probably more than content to always be one of the thousands of recreational divers out there. I will never turn down the chance to read about the men and women who dive on the edge of the knife blade though, risking their very lives, especially if the account is as gripping as Kurson's non-fiction account of the discovery and eventual identification of the mystery German U-boat laying in 230 feet of water off the coast of New Jersey, where no U-boat should have been according to official war accounts.

Kurson follows the two divers who were most instrumental in the identification of the U-boat, two men who initially disliked each other but came to respect the driving force behind their different desires to dive the wreck, put a name to it, and to honor the sailors who were forever trapped in their watery grave. Kurson weaves dramatic tension throughout his narrative, even ratcheting it up as he presents the terrible tragedies of first Steve Feldman's death and then Chris and Chrissy Rouse's. He never minimizes the risks taken by all of the divers although his main focus remains on Vietnam vet John Chatterton, who ultimately pulled the spare parts box that would identify the wreck and Richie Kohler, who felt such a responsibility to the long dead sailors that he traveled to Germany to meet with their families.

Kurson does tend to neglect many of the other divers, especially those on the initial dives, mentioning their names briefly but without offering any suggestion of their impressions or contributions. However, his laser focus on Chatterton and Kohler makes for a tight and thrilling narrative that will keep readers, even those with zero knowledge of diving, on the edge of their seats. His descriptions of the dangers inherent in deep water diving, especially in the 90's, before nitrox mixes gained ascendency for such dives, are absolutely heart pounding. And he is spot on when detailing the swirling mess of sediment that contributes to zero visibility. Kurson does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the physical effects of the bends or from the vision of what a drowned body would look like after 5 months in the water and these descriptions will induce horror indeed but they reinforce the dangers and their potential results to which these wreck divers willingly and repeatedly expose themselves.

The book is not all diving though; it is also an historical mystery and Kurson takes the reader along as, much to the dismay of Chatterton and Kohler, each credible theory about the identity of the U-boat falls apart. As the wreck continued to withhold its secrets, the divers had to do archival research and in the process discovered that history as it is written is not always accurate and true. And as they waded through both the factual and the murky, they learn quite a bit about U-boats themselves. At the end of the narrative, as the quest for the boat's identity is coming to its conclusion, Kurson also draws a very credible picture of life on this particular U-boat as well as the lives of the lost crew members.

The writing is polished and the story exciting. I gulped the book down in a little over a day, pulled ever onward by the mystery and the persistence of these men. Dramatic and intense, this was a cracking good read. I just hope the image of what happens to your blood in extreme cases of the bends fades from my head before I have the chance to put a regulator in my mouth again.

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