The Old Man and the Sea and the Boy

An off-shore wind farm in the near future grounds this tale of loss and survival

Ben Smith: his poetic abilities paint the surroundings of the novel in vivid detail.

Ben Smith: his poetic abilities paint the surroundings of the novel in vivid detail.

Sat, Apr 20, 2019, 06:00


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Ben Smith

Fourth Estate

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Doggerland, an area of land that connected Britain to continental Europe, was flooded by rising sea levels somewhere between 6,500-6,200 BC. Now it is submerged beneath the North Sea, and geologists believe the area stretched from the east coast of Britain to the Netherlands, the west coast of Germany and the peninsula of Jutland. First identified by archaeologists in the early 20th century, it was named in the 1990s after 17th-century Dutch fishing boats known as doggers.

The boat is a significant object in Ben Smith’s hypnotic debut novel, both a symbol of freedom and the past, and a reminder of the monotonous, never-ending work of the present. Smith sets his book in the North Sea on a wind farm of thousands of acres far from the coastline, or what remains of the coastline. In his post-apocalyptic landscape, it is unclear what has happened to Britain, or indeed the rest of the world, as two characters – the Boy and the Old Man – run the farm for a shadowy organisation known only as The Company.

Days working the turbines and trawling for loot in the sea are long, gruelling, repetitive. Nights are lonely, cold and broken only by homemade spirits and an occasional visit from the Pilot, who drives a hard bargain for the measly supplies he cargoes to the farm. If there is a moral to the story, it comes late in the book – “Everything changes, if you wait long enough” – with the action instead focusing on the daily realities of life on the farm, and the Boy’s frustration at the mysterious circumstances that caused his father to abandon him.

Those hoping for an adventure story along the lines of Robinson Crusoe or Theodore Taylor’s The Cay will be disappointed. The Boy’s attempts to leave the island lack urgency and momentum. In a world where so little information is known, it is difficult to establish stakes. The Boy’s efforts seem doomed from the beginning and tend to blur into the rest of the trancelike narrative. Smith is not a sentimental writer and the few moments of tenderness witnessed between the Old Man and the Boy do not amount to the devastation of Taylor’s novel, for example, which tells a more classic tale of an unlikely friendship blossoming in alien surroundings.

World submerged

Where Doggerland shines is in its eerie depiction of a world stripped back to its essentials and a study of two people who survive it. The act of retrieval is central to the book: the work they do on the farm, the Boy’s investigations into the past, the story of his father, the sections that interrupt the narrative to tell of a time thousands of years earlier when the world was submerged in water.

Smith is well-placed to tell the tale. A lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, he also specialises as an academic in environmental literature focusing on oceans, waste and the Anthropocene epoch, which relates to human impact on geology. His first poetry pamphlet, Sky Burials, was published by Worple Press and his poetry and criticism have appeared in numerous outlets. Smith lives in Cornwall with his partner, the author Lucy Woods, whose brilliant debut novel Weathering was similarly in thrall to the natural world. Smith’s bleak landscape is stranger still, more reminiscent of the dystopian settings of Cormac McCarthy or Laura van den Berg.

Vivid detail

In Doggerland, the sea and sky rule supreme: “Salt had a very particular smell: sharp, metallic, but sometimes almost plant-like, as if it was alive rather than bits of mineral eroded from stone and dissolved in the sea.” Smith’s poetic abilities frequently paint the surroundings in vivid detail: “Dusk spread across the sea, turning it slick and dark as oil. The boy made his way to the south fields, running the boat at full throttle. At some point a bank of clouds pushed in from the southwest and it began to rain, blurring the towers and reducing visibility to a couple of rows.”

Most of the novel is told in terse, Carveresque prose that works well to relate the strange, unknowable world the pair inhabit. Evocative and well-written, the book has a coy, enigmatic quality than can be frustrating. The relentless nature of the work becomes relentless to the reader when faced with unending mystery and no escape. But it does not for the most part detract from a dreamlike and immersive reading experience that leaves the reader with a sense of loss. In Doggerland, past, present and future all mesh together, with little hope of change. As the Pilot notes in his goading way: “The same struggle, day after day, year after year. The endlessness. I can only imagine how hard it must be, trying to keep this place going, knowing there’s nothing you can really do.”