Ben Smith’s Doggerland was a Guardian Book of the Year on its publication in 2019, earning praise from seemingly everyone who read it. Will it impress me as much as it did them? Let’s dive in and find out.
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Set in what we can only assume to be a bleak, dystopian future, Doggerland charts the day to day life of toil and drudgery on a vast offshore wind farm. Whilst this might sound exceptionally dull, it’s far from it. “The boy” and his belligerent colleague “the old man” endure near-terminal boredom, dreadful food and the latter’s questionable homebrew in their Sisyphean task of maintaining a facility that is clearly beyond their means to repair. The setting is everything here, and it really feels like Smith has considered how every part of the environment would interact with every other part of it, as well as the effect it has on the characters. Salt water rusts all the metal it comes into contact with, meaning a losing battle to keep the facility in any kind of repair. The isolation of the location means food has to last a long time, so borderline inedible long-life rations are the order of the day.
This isolation is a huge influence on the way the two main characters speak to each other too. Although they know each other’s names, they rarely use them; who else would they be speaking to, after all? Sentences are frequently curt, communicating only what they need to, but there are moments of levity too, most of which come from the old man’s ornery attitude towards the owner of the supply boat. Conversations between the boy and the old man sometimes veer off on tangents too, based on a single misunderstanding (not helped by large helpings of that aforementioned homebrew) and the frustration imparted in these exchanges is excruciating in the best way possible. The dialogue elicits many a wry smile, as well as a few sympathetic clenched fists when the old man is being especially troublesome.
There are allusions to exactly how the world has ended up the way it has, but little in the way of real concrete conclusions. This isn’t a problem for the environmental side of the setup, with interludes between chapters detailing the changing landscape throughout ancient history, and its eventual submersion. There’s mention of flood defences and enough other references to make it clear that this is a world approaching an apocalypse, if it’s not already effectively had one. Where the world building is a little thin, or, to be entirely truthful, very thin, is in the societal side of things. We know that the boy is on the rig because his father abandoned his post, reneging on his contract and dooming his son to take his place. But less clear is exactly who this contract is with, an organisation referred to only as “the Company.” No real information is ever given about them, so those for whom extensive detail is a must, this could be slightly frustrating.
This minor niggle aside, it’s clear that the world of Doggerland is set up in the way it is specifically to tell this particular story. This story of these two characters, so different they can’t even really be called an odd couple, eking out an existence in this unique and beautifully bleak setting. Smith injects his characters with so much heart you’d have to be made of stone not to fall for them. Whether it’s the way the old man dredges the polluted sea with his nets hoping to fish up relics of a past lost beneath the waves. Or the way the boy will be repairing a turbine, only to find an example of his father’s handiwork – something akin to a haunting in this seemingly most unmagical of settings. Both characters have their ghosts and traumas, and both cope with them in ways that set them even more at odds than is first evident.
As the plot is teased out, the boy makes discoveries that could shake the rig to its foundations, resulting in plenty of moments of tension as he tries to conduct his investigations covertly. At the mercy of the weather at the midway point of the novel, both characters are confined to the rig, unable to tend to the turbine fields or find the answers they seek. They resort to a byzantine variation on pool (on an extremely battered table) to pass the time. It mirrors not only the back and forth they have between each other in their conversations and general behaviour towards one another, but also the larger struggles they’re each facing wordlessly. It’s a spellbinding sequence, and a superb demonstration of their perfectly crafted dynamic. A breathlessly exciting account of the storm itself very nearly eclipses it in terms of memorability, making it very difficult to choose a highlight in this deftly constructed novel.
With shades of The Road and The Old Man and the Sea, Doggerland is a triumphant debut. A novel that’s by turns elegiac and fiercely hopeful, it’s an assured debut from a formidable talent, who I hope we’ll see plenty more of in the future.
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