Dreamland (Scribner) by Rosa Rankin-Gee

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 to or ignored by the characters. Climate change is a bomb waiting to go off. Many people believe we are sleepwalking into tragedy, and that our response is too little, too late. In her latest book, 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. Rankin-Gee underlines this reality by including relevant sources at the end of her novel. Dreamland suggests one possible ending to the bleak trajectory we are on.

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 bedsits they’ve endured in London. In Margate, they find a flat and Jas gets a job at a pub, where seven-year-old Chance befriends Davey. They attend the Tracey Emin Academy, until the schools start closing. People are moving out of Thanet and 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 13, develops a talent for breaking into empty properties. Chance’s voice is naïve and knowing – she’s barely out of childhood but has had to hone her survival instinct from an early age. Chance’s 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. He is a cold, controlling presence, and Jas fails to protect her children from his machinations.

As Margate falls into further decline, a charismatic politician, 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 to employ local men.

Chance falls in love with Francesca, a wealthy Londoner who is working with one of those aid charities. While Chance dreams of forging a life together, Francesca is evasive. Chance is a vividly drawn character. We see that she has lived a brutal life and that her future holds little promise. We can understand why she wants to be with Francesca, and grab a part of her world, however fleeting. But their on-off relationship may pall with some readers after a while.

The filmic quality of the devastated landscape which Rankin-Gee portrays, from the “the 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.

This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.