DOGGERLAND: a review

Doggerlandby Ben Smith,
published April 2019

All around, to every horizon, the blades of the wind farm turned.

Review:
Far from land, out in the North Sea a boy (Jem) and an old man (Greil) live and work on a vast wind farm. They maintain and service the 6,000 turbines of which 850 are broken and more are malfunctioning – ‘dark blooms and scabs of rust… seepages of oil and grease … slumped down at an angle, their foundations crumbling like silt.’ This is an elemental world coloured grey – mineral and metallic – where everything is constantly changing and being eroded by the sea; even the old man’s cheeks are ‘flushed purplish grey, like metal discoloured by a flame.’ The sea itself is polluted and sterile, with nothing moving in it apart from human rubbish and plastic. In an evocative description we see:

swathes of shining fluid that coated the surface of the water… shoals of plastic bags and bottles… the brittle shells of electrical appliances.

In this bleak environment set in the not too distant future, the two main characters are so rarely named they could be any of us, or represent each end of one life: youth and old age; innocence and experience. Their only contact is with the captain of the quarterly supply boat who brings the processed meals they live on and occasionally trades with them. To ease the boredom and acute isolation the man and boy play tricks and try to outmanoeuvre each other like an elaborate game of chess. The old man salvages artefacts from the seabed, evidence of the Stone Age civilisation who lived there when it was ‘Doggerland’ before sea levels rose and it was submerged. The boy’s main obsession is to find out what happened to his father who worked on the farm before him and who mysteriously disappeared. When he finds a shoe at the beginning of the novel he thinks it could be his father’s.

This inventive novel, written with a pared-down style that still admits genuinely beautiful poetry, has echoes of Waiting for Godot and The Truman Show. A very impressive debut from Ben Smith about isolation, selflessness and the indefatigable human urge to create and explore.

Background information about Doggerland:
Named after the Dogger Bank (familiar to listeners of BBC Radio’s shipping forecast) which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers, the prehistoric existence of a now submerged area of land linking Britain to mainland Europe was established in the late 19th century. It featured in a short story by H G Wells. In the 1990s interest was revived by archaeologist and academic, Bryony Coles, who named the area “Doggerland”

doggerland mapMap of how Doggerland might have looked.

Around 6,000 years ago, the nomadic Mesolithic people were forced out of Doggerland by rising water that engulfed their low-lying settlements. Modern fishermen often find ancient bones and tools that date to about 9,000 years ago.

skull of wooly mamothNorth sea 1999,DoggerlandThe skull of a woolly mammoth, discovered in the North Sea in 1999, in the area then known as Doggerland. Image: OGMIOS/CREATIVE COMMONS

Now (2018 onwards) archaeologists working for Swedish energy firm Vattenfall are examining a set of ‘cores’ recently extracted from the seabed as part of the developer’s surveys for its Norfolk Boreas offshore windfarm. The core samples provide an almost unbroken record of pre-historic environmental change from the end of the last Ice Age through to the flooding of Doggerland. The research will shed light on how quickly our ancestors would have needed to adapt to the changing coastline, as rising sea levels flooded the North Sea through the English Channel and cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. Climate scientists say a similar situation could affect the billions of people who live within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of a shoreline today, if polar ice caps continue to melt at an accelerated pace.

References:
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/doggerland

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/environment/lost-landmass-doggerland

https://www.nextnature.net/2009/04/mapping-a-lost-world

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerland

 

The Word For Freedom: a review

The word for freedom

An excellent and very enjoyable anthology of short stories, by both established and new writers, inspired by 100 years of women’s suffrage, The Word for Freedom is the brainchild of the author, Rose McGinty. Sales of the book will raise money for the work of Hestia, an organisation with a crucial role in running refuges and giving support to women and their children escaping domestic abuse in London.

The stories themselves range from the historical (set at the time of the Suffragettes) to the contemporary, and we see women at all stages of life and in a variety of settings. There is darkness of course, but also humour and above all hope that women can overcome whatever life throws at them.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who calls him or herself a feminist.

Eggshells: a review

Eggshells

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally is a darkly hilarious and moving novel about feeling that you don’t fit in. Vivian lives alone in her dead great-aunt’s house and spends every day (like a 21st century Leopold Bloom) walking the streets of Dublin. Other people and all their words and conversations make no sense to her and she can’t understand how to live in the ordinary world. Vivian believes she’s a changeling, and is looking for a portal to take her back to where she thinks she belongs.

In the vein of the best-selling Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, this novel is a depiction of acute loneliness. Vivian’s parents are dead, her sister can’t stand her and she has no idea how to make friends, so writes a notice and pins it to a tree:

WANTED: Friend called Penelope. Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say. Good Sense of Humour Not Required Because My Laugh Is a  Work in Progress. Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply. Phone Vivian

For me it took time to get used to Vivian’s strange world but once I did there were many moments of laugh out loud humour. Her neighbours comment on her behaviour:

“Ah, Vivian, would you look at yourself, a grown woman up a tree on a day like today.”

When reminded by David, her social worker to keep an open mind she says:

“I am open-minded … sometimes I wear my slippers on the opposite feet to change my worldview, even though it makes me hobble.”

At heart this is a book about language and how we use and misuse it. As she journeys around Dublin, Vivian collects lists of words making patterns and connections and trying to find hidden meanings. She’s not ‘neurotypical’ and is therefore unlikely to change her (to us) eccentric ways of thinking, so don’t expect character development, but if you love a novel that plays with language you’ll enjoy reading Eggshells. As an unreliable narrator her skewed understanding of the world makes for some very funny one liners and achingly funny set pieces.

She may be a tragic and lonely figure but Vivian is a feisty, determined character getting on with her life against the odds; by the end there are glimmers of hope that something  may change for the better, even if she never finds her portal. Eggshells reflects our own image back as we observe Vivian’s struggles and is a bid for acceptance and understanding of human differences.

Newly published by the Borough Press, Eggshells was first published in 2015 and has recently won The Rooney Prize for emerging Irish writers. As chair of the selection committee, literary agent, Jonathan Williams said: “Caitriona Lally’s only novel, Eggshells, is a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.

This Is (Not About) David Bowie: a review

Due to be published on 12th November this is a debut flash fiction collection from award-winning writer, F J Morris.

This is not about David Bowiek

It’s a bit like saying ‘Don’t think about an elephant’ so of course you can’t help it, only in this case it’s the ghostly presence of the great David Bowie floating through these stories. His songs (their titles), influential fashion-sense and his (almost) staged and unexpected death link surreal, surprising stories rooted in everyday life with a twist of sci-fi. The collection includes very short flash fiction as well as verse and some longer stories. An impressive range.

In the opening story, When David Bowie moved in, a failing relationship is pushed to breaking point after ‘pieces of Bowie landed daily’. When a woman feels her heart becoming cold and she starts to grow scales, in Loving the alien, she hopes it’s ‘a sickness that would go away’ but ‘It was genetic; an alien gene in my very DNA.’ With this metaphor F J Morris examines the impact on a relationship of the death of a baby, and the way the couple each hide their emotions. Other dark or challenging subjects are given this slant approach: child abuse in Blooming Scars and the loss of a sister in Swings and Rocket Ships. In the poem A Song of Space the writer plays on the contrast between Space with a capital ‘S’, ‘arms holding supernovas and planets and milky ways’ and the minute space formed by ‘the semicolon between now and then.’

Talking of semicolons, I particularly enjoyed the more experimental Slush Puppies that cut punctuation and capital letters altogether, echoing the experimental nature of adolescent sexuality: ‘I know she would taste sweet like her candy-floss hair.’

This Is (Not About) David Bowie is a collection that combines a light touch with serious undertones that question what it means to be human. Now to dig out my old Bowie records…

This Is (Not About) David Bowie will be published on 12/11/18 in eBook and paperback.

All Among The Barley: a review

all-among-the-barley

When it comes to evoking the natural world and capturing the sense of a superstitious, rural community on the verge of disappearing after the First World War, Melissa Harrison is a very fine writer. For the first half of All Among The Barley it was like watching paint slowly drying, albeit a very beautiful paint from Farrow and Ball; and that’s not to say it’s a bad thing, just that there is often little sense of plot and (apart from the main protagonist) some of the characters have been picked straight from central casting. There are shades of Hardy here, even down to burning ricks and a rape scene reminiscent of poor Tessa Durbeyfield, as well as a very Hardyesque sense of dark brooding and foreboding. And yet… half way through everything gains pace and the hints of forces at work are substantiated and brought out into the open: one character really is the violent drunk we’d suspected and another an out-and-out fascist. Topical questions are raised about how communities deal with those who are different (migrant workers) and how easy it is to be influenced by the politically astute (Farage and Johnson).

Ultimately, this is an enjoyable story of the loss of innocence in a vanishing world brought to life by a writer with painterly gifts.

Ghost Wall: a review

 

Ghost Wall by Sarah MossSarah Moss is a novelist, travel writer and academic, teaching in the University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. She’s written five novels, The Tidal Zone (Granta, 2016), Signs for Lost Children (Granta, 2015), Bodies of Light (Granta, 2014), Night Waking (Granta, 2011) and Cold Earth (Granta, 2009).

Ghost Wall, published September 2018, is a brilliantly realised and utterly mesmerising novella. When a group of people come together to re-enact Iron Age life there’s a slow spiralling down into the threat of real violence.

At the beginning of the story the (historic) ritual killing of a young girl is graphic and utterly terrifying, setting the scene for an underlying sense of dread that permeates the book. There’s also humour through the contrast of the ‘soft southerners’ from the local university reluctantly dressing up in hand-woven tunics and trying to live as hunter-gatherers (but supplementing their starvation diet with sweets and Coke); while the young northern girl (through whose eyes we see the story) lives with a father obsessed by the Iron Age: she and her mother have to take the holiday completely seriously. Dialogue is sharp and witty and the descriptions excellent. This really is a book that’s hard to put down. A gripping novella.

Five Star rating *****

Separated from the Sea: a review

Separated from the SeaIn the UK, the short story had its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, but more recently there’s been a tendency to treat it with caution – an almost anxious feeling each time you start a new story that there’ll be characters you’ve never met, in unfamiliar scenarios. Like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. You don’t have the comparative safety of the novel where the author leads you gently by the hand from one chapter to the next, developing the narrative. But, in this age of soundbites and instant gratification, I’m happy to say the short form is quietly being resurrected as a flexible, relevant vehicle for narrative. As in this collection of accessible short stories from new indy publisher Retreat West.

 
Amanda Huggins is an experienced and widely-published fiction writer and has won awards for her travel writing but Separated from the Sea is her first full collection of short stories. Her skill at world-building makes getting to grips with new characters and new settings very easy for the reader – she makes you equally at home in the urban sprawl of Tokyo, in a lonely seaside town in Yorkshire or in a bar in New York. With just a few killer sentences she hooks you into a new world. There are some flawless little stories here – imaginative and concise, which are the basic requirements of a successful short story. Just a couple are less well thought out than others and would have benefitted from more redrafting, but in a collection like this I didn’t mind; like eating a packet of Revels (I may be in a minority here) the pleasure is always heightened by knowing a few of them will be the ones you don’t like (chocolate peanuts in my case).

 
Themes include: decisions made then abandoned, women leaving men and branching out on their own, failing relationships, loneliness, dealing with grief at losing a father, and other losses. The sea as in the title story features in several of these richly-imagined stories. The writing is taut and no word is wasted. In Already Formed a woman dealing with the end of an affair finds out the baby she’s hoped for is ‘not even a line on a pregnancy test.’ The Last of Michiko shows a widower gradually coming to terms with his loss: when a friend gives him a jar of what she claims is his wife’s homemade bean jam ‘He knew it was not Michiko’s; he knew it was a deception. But he understood it was meant as a kind one.’ And in Edgware there are beautiful images from the narrator’s travels: ‘silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes.’

 
These entertaining short stories are perfect for a summer holiday, a short commute or for your bedside reading.