Doggerland by Ben Smith

May 2021

After I finished The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, I wasn’t sure what I felt like reading, and I eventually picked up Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, a hefty book that’s been on my bookshelf for a few years now. I got about 30 pages in when I realized that, as interesting and well-written as it is, I wasn’t really in the frame of mind for a 500-page historical treatise on whaling. So I grabbed my Kindle and started idly looking through the books on it, and by accident or design (I don’t really remember), and knowing absolutely nothing about it, I randomly clicked on Doggerland and started reading—and I was transported.

Doggerland tells the story of a Boy (who isn’t really) and an Old Man (who isn’t really) on a rig in the middle of a vast wind farm in a near- or alternate-future world where the oceans have risen. The Boy and Old Man are serving as indentured laborers for an unnamed Company, struggling to maintain the crumbling rig they live on and the aging wind turbines all around them. Their world is described in crystalline and understated detail. It is both vast, taking in the expanse of the possibly never-ending ocean, and claustrophobic, as their life is limited to the rig, their maintenance boat, and the towering but empty turbines. It’s an oppressive atmosphere, and something about it reminded me of No Exit in as much as there is apparently no exit available to them. They can’t even reach the edge of the wind farm in their battery-powered boat, and they are beholden to the Company for which they work.

There are only two other characters in the book, and just one them (the pilot of their supply boat) makes regular appearances. The other—the Boy’s father—disappeared long ago, but the memory of him drives the Boy to try to break away and find out what happened to him, and ultimately to try to break away altogether. At about the mid-point, the book shifts from focusing on the monotony of life on the rig, and the reader is treated to a truly terrifying description of a storm at sea and its consequences.

Much goes unexplained and unsaid in Doggerland, and I like it all the more for that. The book is interspersed with very short historical chapters that poetically describe the formation of the earth and the sunken land now known as Doggerland, but we never find out exactly how the built world in which the Boy and the Old Man live came to be. References are made to a “mainland,” but we don’t know where or what it is, or if it even really exists. The story is a bleak and beautifully rendered enigma.

It was also, funnily enough, the perfect counterpart to The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again—so much so that it could almost be a sequel of sorts. The books share a dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality, and as a reader you constantly have to try to find your footing in them, almost as if you were standing on the pitching deck of a boat. But whereas The Sunken Land is chilly all the way down, Doggerland has a surprisingly warm heart beating at its center. I was intrigued and engaged and ultimately surprisingly moved by it.

Further reading…