By Ben Smith
“His father’s breath had been loud in the small room. It had smelled smoky, or maybe more like dust. ‘I’ll get out,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll come back for you, ok?’ The boy remembered that; had always remembered it. And, for a time, he’d believed it too.”
Ben Smith’s novel takes place at an offshore windfarm stretching for thousands of acres – all that is visible from the main rig is row upon row of turbines as far as the eye can see. The Boy, who is no longer a boy, and the Old Man, whose age is difficult to determine, are charged with its maintenance. They live alone with only infrequent visits from a loquacious but corrupt boatman who brings them essential supplies.
The Boy’s father once worked on the farm but disappeared in puzzling circumstances. Consequently, the son was sent by the Company to fulfil his contract, but where he went remains a mystery and the Old Man is loath to discuss the matter.
Doggerland isn’t a setting conjured up by the author, but an area of land that once connected Great Britain to continental Europe. It is now submerged beneath the North Sea after being flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500–6,200 BCE but was hitherto a rich habitat colonised by humans during the Mesolithic period. Something similar appears to be taking place on the mainland, though the protagonists haven’t returned home or seen the coastline since taking up their positions and know next to nothing about events in the wider world.
In a recent post I quoted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale about societal changes happening so slowly they are almost imperceptible, or as she put it far more vividly: “in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” It strikes me this is what Smith has endeavoured to demonstrate in his novel. Civilization, once so progressive and dynamic, is now, much like this immense, expiring windfarm, corroded and all but unsalvageable.
Doggerland is a compelling, finely crafted novel about isolation, selflessness and hope in hopeless circumstances. An impressive debut.
Many thanks to 4th Estate for providing an advance review copy of this title.