Ben Smith is a poet and “a lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, specialising in environmental literature and focusing particularly on oceans, climate change and the ‘Anthropocene’.” The idea of a wordsmith who knows his subject promises a great read, and I think Smith delivers this in Doggerland.
Set sometime in the future, Smith uses Dogger Bank wind farms (that are currently under construction) to deftly amplify the characters’ isolation. He then layers this with a sense of desolation: “Now, the dust in the room was the old man’s too – all tangled up with his own. If he thought about it, he could imagine them both swirling around, caught by the air con’s mechanical breeze, dragged through its vents and grilles, through all the rig’s pipework and out into the air. He could almost feel the real wind carrying them up over the fields, over the cushion of turbulence and out to the open water, the featureless sea, where all noise and trace of the farm diminished. But he tried not to think about it too much. All the dust got caught in the filters.”
Smith’s descriptions are as rich and evocative as an oil painting by JMW Turner, despite the brevity of the text. And the simple dialogue feels very real – the times when the old man speaks, I could picture him standing before me.
There is also an underlying threat running through the novel. Catastrophic changes that have occurred in the past can easily happen again. And maybe they already have. “For a hundred thousand years the water waited, locked up as crystal, sheet and shelf. All was immobile, but for the slow formation of arc and icicle, which was the water remembering the waves it used to be and the waves it would become again. The only sound was the crackle of frozen mud and ice rind, which was the water, down to its very molecules, repeating its mantra: solidity is nothing but an interruption to continuous flow, an obstacle to be overcome, an imbalance to be rectified.”
Along with the environmental aspect, exploring who we are and where we belong are also constant themes. And while the book is eerie and sad and frightening, it also highlights the human traits of stubbornness, ingenuity, and love, therefore suggesting hope.
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