In depth ★★★★★
The Divers’ Game is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a long time, and it continues to haunt me, weeks after reading. In it, Ball takes aspects already present in society – fear, violence, otherness – to a socialised extreme, in a way that calls our humanity into question. His writing is poetic and exquisite, provoking both moral reflection and morbid fascination with the dark world he draws.
In The Divers’ Game, Ball paints an horrific picture of a fractured society, divided between citizens (pats), and migrants and criminals (quads). The pats carry gas masks and canisters of lethal gas, and are drilled to unleash it whenever they feel like – provoked or not – onto the maskless quads. Ball emphasises how these murders are socialised to be outside the definition of violence, a “non-act”, not worth a thought. The quads are distinguished by a brand on their cheek and their lack of a right thumb – forcibly removed by the state as a matter of course. The scenario has an allegorical feel, but resembles real world divisions all too closely.
We see this world through four, loosely connected segments that showcase different dimensions of society’s warped morality and enabled cruelty. Part of the power of this tale is the way Ball takes us into exceptional moments in four everyday lives – a visit to a “zoo” (with only one living animal – a world of indiscriminate gas use has killed the rest), preparations for a parade designed for chaos, the hunt for a missing boy, and the last moment of a woman’s life. We see the lives of both pats and quads, as a reminder of the humanity of both. But we also see exaggerated reflections of contemporary society in each – the ruthless cruelty of children, the contrition of someone who has abused their power, the lesson we have learned (or have we?) about the dangers of absolute power.
There is a breathless lyricism to the writing that I adored – writing that verges on the edge of poetry, with thought given to rhythm and pacing (I have since learned that Ball began as a poet – it shows). This is exhilarating in a novel, and it doesn’t grow wearisome as the story progresses. I devoured the short sections and felt they both heightened the unreality of this ghastly world, and propelled us through it. Even the character names have been carefully chosen to sound both familiar and distant – some, like Lethe, loaded with meaning.
The novel so piqued my interest that I did some reading around it, and came across an interview Ball did with author Patty Yumi Cottrell, published in The Paris Review. In it, he describes The Divers’ Game thus:
“I don’t believe it is a dystopia…Instead it is a short speech about violence—real violence that I have observed in the past forty-one years. It is a parable about that; it’s a parable but there is no lesson.”
To my mind, then, Ball has written the 1984 for the 21st century. Read it.
I received a copy of The Divers’ Game from Text Publishing in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.