Science fiction has the power to predict, or at the very least, the capability to explore experiences and ideas from contemporary culture and face them forward – propel them towards our collective future. It can imagine the possible and the seemingly impossible because it is not bound by the strict constraints of mundane reality. Yet, perhaps it is our reality that sets the ball rolling. In ‘The Sea Inside Me’, we are transported to a near-future England. Newark-by-the-Sea to be precise –
‘This is Newark-by-the-Sea. Sample zone. No one in or out. And no one, under any circumstances, allowed to remember what they’ve done or what was done to them.’
This is the future Sarah Dobbs has evoked.
Dobbs, a previous nominee of the Guardian’s Not the Booker award for her debut novel ‘Killing Daniel’, is an evocative writer. Published by Unthank, both for her debut and for ‘The Sea Inside Me’, and featured in an array of Unthank’s Unthologies, her narrative twists and turns in the most unexpecting ways.
As mentioned, ‘The Sea Inside Me’ is set in the near future. England, according to the blurb, has been ‘ravaged by civil strife and terrorism’, and in result Newark-by-the-Sea, has ‘trialled the Process – the removal of traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the minds of its citizens’. A noble idea, except, not really. The further you delve into the novel, the murkier the ‘Process’ gets. Nothing is as it seems. It summons up similar, if not slightly obvious comparisons to Philip K. Dick, George Orwell and Ray Bradbury – that foresight to take the current state of the world – politics, economy, social relationships, etc, and spin them into a future that is never so far removed from the one in which we exist. An England ‘ravaged by civil strife and terrorism’, it’s not that hard to imagine, is it?
Our protagonist is Audrey, though that isn’t her real name (it’s Evie). She is contracted to work as a Processing Officer – ‘at least, that’s what you’re meant to think’. There’s talk of Audrey being a mother, or maybe not, in her life pre-Newark, and she sees her role in processing as a sort of guardian. It’s that instinct that drives the base narrative of the novel – the base narrative being a sort of sci-fi thriller, with a girl called Candy at the epicentre. Early on Audrey is instructed to pursue Candy, ‘a girl whose memories are inexplicably returning’. Unsurprisingly, it leads Audrey into a disturbing plot, one that involves the trafficking of young girls in Newark, and the dangers of the Process, consequence and corruption abound.
Though the jump off point is somewhat easy to predict – a girl can slowly remember everything the Process is supposed to wipe, so naturally the novel will weave itself along that particularly mysterious line, Dobbs has the knack of keeping you guessing, both in the narrative, but in her style as well. The prose is as jarring as it is descriptive –
‘Candy is breathless. The breath creased out of her lungs. The fox cries. Someone eats the ring. I hear it crunch. Sherbet fizzes on tongue. I imagine the white powder sat atop all the red dots, the chessboard of my tonsils, bloating. A ring of spit around my grey black molar.’
There are many instances where the prose falls into such vivid yet jerking imagery. I admit that at times it threw me – I had to give a handful of paragraphs a re-read just to fully capture what Dobbs was conveying, but for the most part it serves to heighten the novel, and indeed the subject as a whole. Audrey is navigating a world that is ever changing, it’s only right that the prose should strive exhibit that too.
In a novel that never keeps you on steady ground, it would be remiss to actually go ahead and blurt out spoilers. There are others who aid, and who harm – Troy, who has ties to Audrey through the Process, Luke, a former lover pre-Newark, Jonas, a bartender, Ludnick, a university professor and Hidalgo, a man, who above all others, isn’t to be trusted. As Troy tells her ‘everybody has their own intentions’. I’m unsure if there’s a specific reason to make the vast majority of the secondary characters male, considering the content of the novel. It works, though some are more fleshed out than others, either way.
In the end, there are perhaps more answers than there are conclusions, though a conclusion is duly given. It’s a novel that creates an expansive near world and I wonder if there is longevity in its creation. Audrey and Candy’s story is clearly only a small piece of the puzzle. That’s not to say I expect Dobbs to return to the traumatic world she has created, but it’s more of a compliment to how layered it is – there are many stories that could be told. Admittedly there were times where I wished the plot would be slightly clearer, but that says more about me than the novel itself, and I yearned to know more about Audrey (well, Evie), but considering she’s our narrator, it’s unlikely she’d be so forthcoming with details, especially when you consider she’s gone through the Process herself (or has she?).
‘The Sea Inside Me’ is stark and detailed, delivered with painful clarity. To return to my opening point about science fiction (the power to predict, or at the very least, the capability to explore experiences and ideas from contemporary culture and face them forward), ‘The Sea Inside Me’ is a novel that touches those edges deftly, but clearly. In a society where images of violence, specifically terrorism and acts of brutality, are so easily accessible, and in a climate that is ever reaching for the brink of unrest, Dobbs takes the current moment and gives an insight into where we could end up. A Process that removes ‘traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the mind of its citizens’, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be so oblivious? Except, well, we know the downsides, as does Dobbs. What happens to those memories? Who keeps them? And as with anything, who abuses the system to reap the savage rewards? In ‘The Sea Inside Me’ there’s much to ponder. It’s a fine read, with a tale that keeps you guessing right until the very end, and beyond.
The Sea Inside Me is published by Unthank and is available here.
Sarah Dobbs is the author of Killing Daniel (Unthank, 2012), and her short fiction has appeared in The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings (Unthank, 2016), Red Room: New Short Fiction Inspired by the Brontes (Unthank 2013), and Unthology 1, 8 and 9. She is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sunderland and lives in Durham. @sarahjanedobbs.
Reviewed by Emily Harrison
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