Doggerland by Ben Smith

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Doggerland ben smith

There’s no sign of a decline in the popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. If anything, it’s becoming even more prevalent – a symptom of our widespread anxiety about the future of the human race in a time of environmental crisis.

Doggerland, the debut novel by Plymouth University creative writing lecturer Ben Smith, is set in a drowned landscape and has just two main characters: ‘the old man’ and ‘the boy’ (who’s not really a boy anymore), who navigate an enormous North Sea wind farm via boat. Their maintenance work involves an endless stream of small tasks, but they’re hampered by insufficient supplies and outmoded technology like satnav and tablets. They pass the time playing pool, drinking homebrew, and fishing for artefacts of a lost civilization. In a comic opening sequence, the boy hauls up his fishing line to find he’s caught the clichéd boot.

The distance from the present day is indicated in slyly throwaway comments like “The boy didn’t know what potatoes were.” Tins and packets of reconstituted vegetables and protein are the characters’ mainstay, such that the discovery of a tin of strawberries and a well-stocked coffee machine provides sensual epiphanies. The only other thing that breaks up the monotony of their days is the visits from the supply boat pilot.

The pilot’s role is as an instigator of discontent. The boy inherited his father’s contract with the Company, but doesn’t know the full story behind the enforced handover. He learns from the pilot that his father left in a second maintenance boat and drowned. As the boy looks back into the boat’s records, he tries to believe that his father dared to make it to the mainland and promised to come back for him, so the failure to return was not his fault. As the old man’s cough worsens and the supply of tins starts to run low, the boy ponders the possibility of his own escape from the wind farm.

Blink and you’ll miss it, but the two main characters do actually have names: the old man is Greil, and the boy is Jem. As potential homophones of “grail” and “gem,” these suggest things of value that are sought after. Meanwhile, the pilot is an emblem of human greed: he only likes to talk in terms of want, not need. Cravings he can cope with, but not emotions or obligations. The novel thus asks questions about responsibility and sacrifice, and comments on modern addictions and a culture of disposability. For instance, there are striking moments when we see the boy throwing a mountain of paper cups overboard, and the old man sifting through tiny grains of plastic.

Much like The Wall, John Lanchester’s latest, this is a timely offshore story that investigates the ramifications of England’s isolationism. Nor is it not the only book referencing Doggerland (a region of ancient England that linked it to Continental Europe before c. 6000 BCE) to come out this year. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland, a travel book that incorporates cultural history and nature writing, came out in February. Smith has certainly captured something of the British literary zeitgeist, then.

From page to page, though, elements of Doggerland grew tiresome for me. There is a lot of maritime vocabulary and technical detail about supplies and maintenance. The location is vague and claustrophobic, the pace is usually slow, and there are repetitive scenes and few conversations. To an extent, this comes with the territory: Smith has chosen this circumscribed locale and this minuscule circle of characters, so it’s not surprising that the plot and prose come across as similarly limited.

But one thing that cannot be ignored is that this is an entirely male world. There are no women in the cast, of course, but none turn up in memory either. Female bodies appear solely as grotesque fertility figurines in the old man’s collection of relics – “headless torsos with jutting breasts and smooth fat thighs that stirred strange thoughts [the boy] didn’t know he possessed.” Whether the absence of women is a deliberate feature of Smith’s fictional setting or coincidental, I couldn’t say. There are never any hints of a gender-specific plague or a fertility crisis in the recent past. At the very least, perhaps, the overwhelming masculinity could be interpreted as just one of many signs that things are not as they should be here.

Fans of the themes and style of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and The Road by Cormac McCarthy will get on best with Smith’s writing. I most appreciated the moments of Beckettian humour in the dialogue and the poetic interludes that represent human history as a blip in the grand scheme of things. The beauty of these occasional passages helps balance out the monotony of life on the wind farm: “It is a simple history – of water turned to ice, returning to water. And, barely noticeable, somewhere in the middle of this cycle, plants and animals and people made this place their home.”

It was in fact through his poetry that I discovered Smith, via Nature Matters 2018, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role that poetry might play in environmental activism, and read several recent poems inspired by the Earth System Model, which provides the data for the International Panel on Climate Change. I was impressed enough to buy a copy of Sky Burials, his debut chapbook, from the bookstall. Looking back, I can see how the ideas and language of his poetry entered into his fiction, as in this set of fragments from “Lessons in Augury”:

That’s the future: all edges, precipices and sheer drops into nothing. Or is it edgeless as a marsh?

Nature: that used to mean something didn’t it? That was where we saw things. Where we heard things.

Wait, like the last time this happened.

Over the horizon, cities will rise and fall. Like the tides.

If speculative fiction can be judged on the plausibility of its scenarios and the relatability of its characters’ actions and motivations, Doggerland seems likely to stand the test of time.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer from Maryland, USA. She reviews memoirs for the Times Literary Supplement and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Ben Smith, Doggerland (Fourth Estate: London, 2019). 978-0008313364, 208 pp., hardback.

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