Book Review: Shadow Divers
June 14 , 2005
If there were a list of things that capture people's attention, true stories and mysteries would be at or close to the top. It makes sense then that very few things can equal the story of a real-life mystery in its ability to take hold of the imagination and not let go. So it is with Shadow Divers. The combination of Robert Kurson's superb story writing and the intrigue of the events themselves make the book an enthralling read, one that I had a very difficult time putting down.
Shadow Divers chronicles the discovery, and subsequent quest to identify, a World War II era German U-boat lying 230 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. The story revolves primarily around John Chatterton and Richard Kohler, divers well known for their prowess at exploring shipwrecks, and chronicles what slowly becomes an obsession and mission of self-discovery for the two. Kurson gives the feeling of mystery from the first lines of the book, the mention of "something big" to boat owner and legendary diver Bill Nagle by a fisherman friend. Nagle brings in Chatterton and Kohler, along with a hand-full of other experienced wreck divers, and the story tells itself from there.
While the story-line flows naturally on its own, Kurson has chosen to break periodically, first for what I thought was a lengthy description of wreck-diving and its perils, and later for short biographies of his main characters (Nagle, Chatterton, and Kohler). He does a good job of placing these interludes so that there is no doubt how they tie into the story, and of writing exactly what the reader needs to know so that they do not run excessively long, but I found myself filled with a nearly overwhelming urge to skip over them to get back to what I thought was the good stuff. Perhaps it would have benefited the book, or at least the anxious reader, to find a different way of including these parts in a way that did not break the natural suspense. Then again perhaps not; make no mistake about what I am saying, overall this is a well-structured book and it would be damaging not to take it all in as the author has written it. When I had finished the book I understood every aspect of the story clearly, and how it all fit together. It just took some patience to get there.
Other than that, it is hard to find complaint with Shadow Divers. Kurson notes early on that he has changed nothing in his telling of the story, including the dialogue originally described to him by all the characters. If this wasn't the case, I might find some of the language a bit over the top. Once you know and understand the characters though, all of it seems natural. The only other small qualm I had was the inclusion of two more breaks in the story line, this time for fictional first-person accounts of the last days of the U-boat and its crew. While Kurson brings everything together in the epilogue, these sections made the book seem disjointed at the point it was included. I am of the opinion that they could just have been left out. The same effect was achieved by his description of the dialogue in the epilogue, making this break in the story pointless. They possess the redeeming quality of being entertaining and intriguing though, albeit misplaced in the book.
I am a bit of a history buff and I enjoy history and historical non-fiction reading. Unfortunately the history books that I tend to come up with are those that make other people wrinkle their noses or shake their heads and say things like, "oh you like those history books." This is not one of those books. Kurson possesses a rare combination in his writing abilities. He is gifted at both recording facts and events with excellent accuracy, and at telling a story that engrosses the reader from the first word to the last. Add to that the natural suspense and intensity of the events themselves and it is a truly remarkable package. If you don't know or care anything about World War II history, you will still likely enjoy this book. If you don't care for story telling, but love seeking answers, you will still likely enjoy this book. I enjoy both and found myself lost in the story, unable to put it down until I had finished it.