Smith writes in controlled, lyrical prose, breaking up his narrative with elegantly expressed intercalary chapters that tell the story of the seas’ shifting relationship with the land from “c20,000 before the present” up to “Year Zero”. “This is how a landscape forms”, we are told in the first of these, “by increments, by the steady acquisition of layers as the ice rolls back, the land becomes habitable, then the sea levels rise once more.” A structure like this works best when there is a sharp contrast between the styles of writing, such as in Grapes of Wrath, where the focus on particular characters is contextualized and enriched by the telescopic images of swathes of the population travelling west in search of prosperity. In Doggerland much of the main narrative is so sparse and monotonous, as is necessitated by setting the book in a pale, unpeopled world, that the experience of reading the whole is rather like being lost among the waves: “Days, months, seasons passed through untethered and indistinct among the flotsam”.
‘The boy’ and ‘the old man’ exist aboard an abandoned accommodation rig in a wind farm of more than 6,000 turbines somewhere in Doggerland, the submerged area of land that once connected the UK to mainland Europe...The shade of Beckett hangs over this bleak, but haunting, tale characterised by a powerfully convincing relationship between the two characters.
Doggerland is an example of how intense and deeply focused the novel can be when examining a closed universe. It posits sinister mysteries that it never explains, giving a vertiginous hint that the mainland no longer exists in any recognisable form – that there is no longer anybody at the controls of the world. Most Kafkaesque of all, it prompts the question of what this slowly failing electricity source is actually supplying. The sense is – nothing... This is an emotionally compelling book, but not flawless. Occasionally the writing resorts to basic fare: “The boy stumbled and fell … He staggered to the controls and cut the throttle.” The structure includes short inter-chapters that describe the geological evolution and inundation of Doggerland, but these add little to the narrative and clarify less... It is a haunting story and could break the prejudice against speculative fiction often reflected in prize lists.
...Smith creates a landscape of brutality with great skill. From this lost terrain, he also wrings a complex human drama, exploring humanity’s place in the natural world, as well as the systems that attempt to place order on our lives... It is an unremittingly wet book, damp and cold and rusted, blasted by waves and tempests, but also warm, generous and often genuinely moving. It is a debut of considerable force, emotional weight and technical acumen that weaves its own impressive course.