Friday, 6 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Sea Inside Me

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

14/19: The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs

The blurb: In an England ravaged by civil strife and terrorism, Newark-by-the-Sea has trialled the Process – the removal of traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the minds of its citizens. Processing Officer Audrey is instructed to tail Candy, a girl whose memories are inexplicably returning. As the Process is about to be rolled out countrywide, a dark conspiracy coils smoke-like into view. Dobbs’ prose is vivid and emotive, crammed with stark images and disturbing insights into the way we are and where we are heading.

The review: there's a quote that the publishers of this novella, Unthank Books, are using to promote The Sea Inside Me and it's this, from Guy Mankowski: "Evoking Ishiguro and Philip K Dick, this story couldn't be more now." And you know what, he's right. Dobbs's portrayal of a near-future England, familiar yet going to ruin, did put me in mind, at times, of Never Let Me Go. Similarly, her extrapolation of modern life, and its direction of travel, to conjure a realistic and all-too conceivable future world reminded me of Minority Report.

Those are pretty grand comparisons to make, but The Sea Inside Me justifies them as a slice of dystopian science fiction. But that's not all. Like all the best speculative fiction, Sarah's tale uses the prism of an imagined near-future England to shine a light on contemporary issues: gender inequality, trafficking, the commodification of women, worrying developments in the use of technology and, looming large over the whole story, climate change and environmental catastrophe. Those are all heavyweight issues, yet the author lays them all out for us to consider deftly, without them overshadowing the narrative; these themes serve the story, not the other way around.

What's more, Dobb's liquid prose style is a joy to read, even when the subject matter is grim. She has a distinctive voice, conjuring inventive descriptions and using words in unusual ways, that is both exciting and rewarding to read. She is also terrific at evoking a sense of place with great economy, brilliantly describing sensory details that place the reader very firmly in Newark-by-the-Sea. Similarly, there is concise but effective characterisation here - Dobbs provides enough of a character to instantly draw a thumbnail sketch of them, with further tiny details drip-fed as the story progresses, allowing the reader to join the dots. For an author, this is a real skill; for a reader, it is a joy to behold.

I'm keen to avoid spoilers, but I can talk about the Process because it's described in the blurb. It's such an intriguing idea, and it's been on my mind for days since finishing the book. Because if you can blank people, ostensibly to remove traumatic memories from victims, do you also create people to whom anything can be done? That's a pretty scary idea... but then if speculative dystopian SF doesn't scare you a bit, it's not doing its job properly, I'd say... And on that note, I'll leave the last word to Sarah's protagonist, Audrey, who closes The Sea Inside Me with this:

Mostly I wonder about stories. About how, while they might not change the world, they at least let us ask the questions. Don't you think?

The bottom line: brilliantly, beautifully written slice of speculative dystopia, deserving of a wide audience (and a three-part TV adaptation by the BBC, in my book)

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. On the basis of this review, I ordered a copy for Louise for Christmas it it sounds like her kind of thing. I'll send her to see you if it isn't.