Thursday, 25 July 2019

Dogger Land, written by Ben Smith; reviewed by Anne Rooney

HarperCollins, 2019
Are you sitting comfortably? Because you won't be for long.

I love this book, but it's miserable. And one of the more miserable things about it is that your sitting comfortably just now is just accelerating us into this grim, desperate yet dreary world. It's a dystopia of small things, dystopia writ tiny, but by that means, writ very large.

This is cli-fi at its bleakest, but also its most compellingly believable. It's set in the sea over Doggerland, a name familiar to most of us in the UK through the Radio 4 shipping forecast but otherwise little thought of. Doggerland is an area of lost land beneath the North Sea. In the last ice age, Doggerland was above sea level and was a plateau connecting Britain and Europe. There is enough heavy symbolism in the 'land lost to the sea' without the added resonance of the 'link to Europe lost' that can't be accidental in a book published in 2019.

There are only two characters, and they live claustrophobically on a dilapidated offshore wind farm. The characters don't have names; they don't need them. If you have only one other person to speak to, they don't need a name. It is not a good life, and not a job they would choose, but the age of choice is long past and this is all there is. They eke out an existence fixing the turbines as they gradually fall apart, but no one is making parts any more so it is an act of cannibalism each time: choose the weakest turbine to ransack for parts in the hope of fixing more. Unsurprisingly, the Old Man (who has been there longest) is not rigorously committed to this work and spends most of his time trawling the sea for detritus he can either exchange with the pilot of the irregular supply boat or hoard. Among the treasures he collects are myriad tiny pieces of broken plastic in different, often vibrant, colours. They are the gems the seabed buries and the waves carry, the legacy of our plastic addiction and the only things with colour in a dead, grey world of vicious storms that can last weeks.

It's a brief novel, or seems it, though it's actually 248 pages long. Doggerland is refreshingly devoid of exposition; how they have ended up here — as well as how we have ended up here — uncurls slowly and with just a few surprises. The idea of escape is enticing to the Boy, but rejected by the Old Man in what looks at first to be cynicism and despairing resignation but turns out to be something far deeper and more redemptive. Indeed, there is no need to point out how we ended up here, as we all know. Only the particulars of the destination hold any element of surprise. The main strength of the book is that it doesn't go in for any great drama or The Road-style horror and despair. It just projects our preoccupation with the day-to-day to its inevitable conclusion.

There is more, though, than a dismal warning about the future. The characters, Boy and Old Man (and the pilot of the supply boat), are caught in a drama that is tragic in the way that Death of a Salesman is tragic. There is grand emotion here, buried because it is too painful to feel in this dying world. The worst of it is that the people of the near future have the same feelings, hopes and yearnings that we all have, but that they know from the start they will come to nothing, or nearly nothing. Yet still they yearn.

Doggerland is an astonishing book. Utterly brilliant and moving, it is redeemed from despair, as all the best tragedy is, by the nobility of the individual human spirit. Read it even if you are sick of climate change (and that won't make it go away); this novel is not about climate change, it's about people. They are very ordinary people. But so are we all, when it comes down to it. Read it to see what we are losing, to see how we will still be human as it slips away. Carry your plastic treasures into oblivion.



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