Book review - Dreamland


When Alfred Hitchcock talked about creating suspense, he often used the analogy of “the bomb under the table”. He was referring to a scenario where the threat is seen by the audience and unknown or ignored by the characters. Climate change is a bomb waiting to go off. Many people believe we are sleepwalking into tragedy - that our response is too little, too slow, too late - others are waiting for a cataclysmic event to rouse our politicians into taking decisive action. In her latest novel, Dreamland, Rosa Rankin-Gee explores a nightmarish scenario of rising sea levels in the UK to great effect

Set on the Kent coast, her dystopian novel imagines a terrifying future, disturbingly close to home. Many of the issues she explores are based in fact. Deep-rooted inequality, extreme weather conditions, and the implementation of harsh policies against the vulnerable are all recognisably part of the world we live in today (as Rankin-Gee underlines by including relevant sources at the end of her novel). Dreamland suggests one possible ending to this bleak trajectory.

A single mum, Jas is offered a cash grant to relocate to Margate with her son JD and daughter Chance. Without questioning why they are being paid to move, the family are delighted to leave the grim London bedsits and unsanitary hotel rooms they’ve endured in London. In Margate they find a flat above a newsagent. Jas gets a job at the local pub, the aptly named Chipped Pearl, where seven-year-old Chance befriends Davey. They attend the Tracey Emin Academy, until the schools start closing. More and more people are moving out of Thanet and the dangerous tides and rising temperatures keep the tourists away. Increasingly feral, Chance and Davey run amok and hang out in Dreamland, the town’s derelict amusement park.

With zero employment opportunities, JD begins dealing drugs while Chance, aged thirteen, develops a talent for breaking into empty properties. Chance’s voice is na├»ve and knowing – she’s barely out of childhood but is wise beyond her years because she’s had to hone her survival instinct from an early age. Chance has known only one form of existence – a brutal one.  Her mother wades through a succession of unsuitable men, until JD’s business partner, Kole, drifts into their orbit and Jas develops an unhealthy obsession with him. Kole moves the family into a claustrophobic high rise flat overlooking the sea. A cold, controlling presence, he openly lusts after Chance and frequently beats Jas who fails to protect either of her children from his machinations.

 As Margate falls into further decline, a charismatic political advisor, Edwin Meyer, displays an interest in regenerating the Kent coastline. Hot on the heels of the aid charities, a mysterious company known as LandSave arrives in Margate and starts employing local men to build a wall. Chance falls in love with Francesca, who claims to be working with the charity Humanita. While Chance dreams of forging a life together, Francesca is evasive and seems to know more than she is letting on. As LandSave’s real intentions are revealed, so is Francesca’s identity.  

We can understand why Chance wants to be with Francesca, and grab a part of her world, however fleeting. The other characters are less vividly drawn. Davey and JD remain obscured by a cloud of kem smoke, their drug of choice, while Jas gradually erases herself as she stagnates. Rankin-Gee allows us little opportunity to feel sympathy for her characters, but that is perhaps the point. There is a sharp division between “those who contribute the least to society, yet take the most from it”, the condemned targets of the planned “population cutback”, and the ruthless overseers.

Rankin-Gee favours atmosphere over pace. Chance and Francesca’s on-off relationship may pall with some readers after a while. However, the filmic quality of the devastated landscape she portrays, from the “[t]he broken spines of old rides at Dreamland” to “the roll of barbed wire that “caught the light, in jagged flashes, in the water”, is hard to shake. Dreamland offers a startling vision of our future and a salutary warning against that ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

A shortened version of this review was published by New Humanist.